The Electability Conundrum

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally at Bonanza High School, on Sunday, February 14, 2016, in Las Vegas. 

The death of Antonin Scalia has brought home two truths about the presidential race to voters in both parties. First, there may be no more important issue in the campaign than the Supreme Court (which some of us have been saying for some time). And second, if that's true, then there may be no more important criterion in picking your party's nominee than who has the best chance of winning in November.

Unfortunately, electability is a difficult thing to predict, no matter how much you know about politics. During the 2008 primaries, for instance, many intelligent Democrats believed there was no way that the voting public would ever elect an African American with a name like "Barack Hussein Obama." Four years before, many Democrats thought that John Kerry was the most electable Democrat because Republicans couldn't possibly attack the patriotism of a war hero, especially with a couple of draft-dodgers like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney at the top of their ticket. Neither of those assessments turned out to be correct.

Nevertheless, it's an impossible question for partisans to ignore, given the stakes of the election. And just how high are they? Someone (usually someone running for president) will always say "This is the most important election of my lifetime," and it's easy to dismiss. After all, no matter what happens, the republic will survive. If you're a Democrat, you can console yourself with the fact that it survived Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, as much damage as they might have done; if you're a Republican you can say the same about Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Nevertheless, there are some reasons why this election could be particularly consequential, particularly for Democrats. The first is the Supreme Court, and Scalia's passing is only part of that story. When the next president is sworn in, Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be 83, Anthony Kennedy will be 80, and Stephen Breyer will be 80. What if Republicans succeed in keeping President Obama from seating a replacement, then a Republican is elected, and some or all of those three fall ill or retire? You could have a Court made up of seven relatively young conservative justices and only two liberals, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. The days of liberals losing cases by a 5-4 margin would be but a happy memory, and the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the end of affirmative action, and the crushing of labor union rights would be only the beginning of a judicial scorched-earth campaign that would not only lay waste to rights liberals hold dear, but would keep doing so for decades to come.

And then there's the matter of what a Republican president would be able to accomplish through legislation. If the GOP nominee wins in November, it will almost certainly also mean that Republicans have held on to the House and the Senate. That president might or not not be a radical conservative, though Donald Trump looks like the only contender with a chance who couldn't be described that way. But Congress certainly will be radical. The Republican Party has been moving sharply to the right in recent years, and with unified control for the first time in a decade, it's safe to say they will pretty much go nuts. Repealing the Affordable Care Act, slashing upper-income taxes, gutting the safety net, rolling back environmental regulations, passing federal restrictions on abortion—if it's in any Republican's fantasies, it'll be able to pass through both houses and get signed by the president. And don't think Democrats having the filibuster will stop that train; given the respect Republicans have shown for norms and traditions, do you think they'll let that stand in their way?

So if you think electability ought to be part of your calculation, what do you need to consider? The Democratic primary makes it a little easier because there are only two candidates, but it's still complicated. Here are the variables to consider:

  1. The reward to be gained from a Bernie Sanders presidency
  2. The reward to be gained from a Hillary Clinton presidency
  3. The chances of Sanders winning in November if he's the nominee
  4. The chances of Clinton winning if she's the nominee
  5. The consequences of a Republican victory in November

That's not to mention how each Democrat would match up against any given Republican, which introduces another dimension of complexity. But here's the basic calculation you have to make: Figure out whether, for your preferences, (1) is larger than (2) or vice-versa, and by how much; then figure out whether (3) or (4) is larger, and by how much; then weigh both of those figures against (5).

For instance, you might decide that Bernie Sanders's presidency would be superior to Hillary Clinton's, but Clinton has a higher chance of winning in November, and since a Republican presidency would be so dreadful, you'll support Clinton even though you like Sanders better. Or you might decide that a Sanders presidency would be so good that even if Clinton might have a slightly better chance in November, it's worth some measure of risk in nominating Sanders because the reward of him winning is so high.

The truth, of course, is that because we aren't rational people we constantly construct post-hoc justifications for the choices we make. In this case, that means we'll convince ourselves that whichever candidate we prefer is also the more electable one. While it might seem logical that Clinton has a higher chance of winning a general election than Sanders, I've yet to encounter a Sanders supporter who actually thinks so. They say that Clinton has her own electability problems (undoubtedly true), and that Sanders will bring in so many new voters that it will overcome the effect of the attacks Republicans will launch on him for his leftist views. Clinton supporters, on the other hand, find this argument laughable; they'll tell you that Republicans will positively disembowel Sanders, and by the time they're done with him he'll seem like he's too much of an extremist to get elected to the Burlington City Council.

I've also found that Sanders supporters are more likely to minimize the negative consequences of a Republican presidency. That might be because they don't see as much of a difference between Clinton and the Republicans, but it's also because they're focused on the first variable, the potential rewards of a Sanders presidency. Clinton supporters, on the other hand, have no sweeping expectations from their candidate; for them, staving off disaster is more than enough reason to support her.

Even if your heart goes aflutter at Sanders's mention of things like single-payer health care and free public college tuition, you'd have to grant that achieving those goals is anything but guaranteed even if he wins the White House. And most of what he would do doesn't differ from what Clinton would do. That's particularly true of the Supreme Court: Any Democratic president who had a chance to name a new justice would be choosing from the same pool of liberal jurists now serving in federal appeals courts or perhaps a few state supreme courts.

But even if you find the substantive differences between Clinton and Sanders to be enormous, it's hard to see them as actually being bigger than the difference between them on one hand and the tsunami of change that will occur if a Republican is elected on the other. Which leaves Democratic voters with no choice but think hard about which candidate is more electable—even if there are no perfect answers to the question.

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