Electability blah blah blah

The predictability of election outcomes from fundamental variables suggests that different presidential candidates from the same party don’t differ much in the votes they will receive in the general election. It’s better to be a moderate than an extremist, and it’s better to be a better campaigner etc., but all these things together probably only count for a couple of percentage points of the vote.

Steven Rosenstone wrote about this in 1984 in his book, Forecasting Presidential Elections, and I don’t think the elections since then have given any reason to doubt Rosenstone’s logic.

Now, don’t get me wrong: a couple of percentage points of the vote can make a big difference–just look at the tied elections of 1960, 1968, 1976, and 2000, as well as the very close election of 2004. Also, who knows how things will go with the unprecedented “woman or young black guy vs. old white guy” dynamic. But, based on past elections, I’d say the whole “electability” thing is overrated. Once Election Day comes around, people will find a reason to vote for the party they want to support.

9 thoughts on “Electability blah blah blah

  1. But what counterfactual are you comparing the election results to? If voters consistently choose the most electable candidate in each party, can we really say what the value of electability is? Can we really say what the value is to the Democrats of nominating Obama instead of Kucinich? Or to the Republicans of nominating McCain instead of Paul? Since, presumably, a party hasn't nominated an unelectable candidate, we can't say what difference it would make.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree that "electability" is overrated, by voters in both parties. I hear people talking about it all the time, like it's the most important consideration in choosing a nominee in the primary.

    I would add to your argument that in almost every case, there is no reason to believe that the conventional wisdom is even correct about who is more electable than whom. Typically the well-known candidate is deemed less electable, simply because we're more aware of his or her weaknesses; the unknown candidate is deemed less electable because no one has heard of him; and the "electability" prize falls to the guy who falls somewhere in between.

    That's assuming there even is a conventional wisdom. More often, fans of candidate A say you should vote for A in the primary because A is more electable, while fans of candidate B say you should vote for B in the primary because B is more electable. Who's right? It's an unprovable claim, and we'll never know because one of them is never going to run in the general.

    You know polls better than I do, so you tell me. All these polls we see during the primary season testing possible matchups for the general, are they any good? They seem useless to me.

  3. Charlie,

    Parties have nominated unelectable candidates, such as Goldwater in 1964 and McGovern in 1972. The point is that, according to the models, other candidates would've lost too, though probably not by so much.


    It's possible that the early matchups are informative (after suitable adjustment); I don't actually know.

  4. What's obtuse about this is it completely ignores the turnout angle. Yes, people will vote for the party they're inclinted to vote for, regardless of the nominee. But some candidates and/or their campaigns bring out people who would otherwise not vote.

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