We are bad at electability, so why do we vote on it?

The unprecedented diversity of this year’s slate of Democrats running for president this cycle, coupled with Trump’s shock 2016 victory, has brought electability to the forefront of the democratic primary. Much of the discussion is defined by hyperbolic articles on why “[Candidate Name Goes Here] is the Only Way To Beat Trump” or “[Candidate Name Goes Here] Will Be Crushed By Trump.”  The electability discussion hasn’t been all bad—the best pieces have used takes on “electability” to shed light on other facets of our society and politics. These are important conversations, and learning to predict electability can be a worthy endeavor, but it’s not what this post is about.

This post is me trying to convince you that neither of us, nor any of our friends, should vote on electability. At all. Perhaps ever.

This doesn’t mean voting for a candidate that has no chance at winning (e.g. Michal Bennet in the Democratic primary). Rather, I don’t think we should choose among the front runners based on electability because historically we are bad at predicting who is, and is not, electable.

The most obvious example of people misjudging electability is 2016. Donald trump was “The Un-Nominatable Frontrunner” in the Republican primary. The prospect that he’d win the presidency was ridiculous, until he beat Hillary Clinton—who benefited from a variety of electability arguments in the primary. Of course, Trump lost to the more electable Mitt Romney in 2012—before Romney lost to Obama. Eight years earlier, one of the chief strategists of Hillary Clinton’s campaign called Obama “unelectable except perhaps against Attila the Hun” (this was a recurring argument against him in the 2008 primary). Of course, we all know Obama went on to win the general election against John McCain, who was considered the most electable Republican running. Perhaps the closest parallel to 2020 was 2004, when John Kerry was nominated in part because he was Mr. Electable. I don’t want to belabor the point, but I do want to point to this 1976 headline from the New York Times: “Ford, Stumping in Ohio, Warns G.O.P. Of a ‘Debacle’ if Reagan Is Nominated.”

This isn’t a uniquely American phenomena (just look at the rises and falls of Boris Johnson, Jeremey Corbyn, Theressa May, and Brexit in UK politics). Likewise, it isn’t insurmountable. I am sure there are people who are good at predicting electability and if you are a superforecaster or have  a track record of accurately predicting electability a year ahead of general elections you should consider electability while voting.[1] Likewise, if an angel visited you and told you who could beat Trump and gave you next week’s PowerBall numbers you should vote accordingly (assuming you won PowerBall). But for the rest of us? We need to take a moment and accept that we are wrong as often as we are right when it comes to electability.

Go vote. Vote for someone you agree with. Vote for someone you like. Vote for the least of the evils or the greatest of the goods. Vote for someone you can be proud of supporting. Vote because you flipped a coin. Just don’t vote because you decided who can’t win, because neither of us know.





[1] But first you should teach me all your secrets.

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