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CA120: The magic and mystery of ‘electability’

Kickoff campaign rally for presidential candidate Kamala Harris in Oakland in January. (Photo: Sheila Fitzgerald, via Shutterstock)

With the second release of the Capitol Weekly 2020 Tracking Poll we can dive into some details of the survey.  Each month we will strive to find something in the data that speaks to a major topic targeted by policy wonks, pundits and political strategists, and we’ll look at the data from California respondents.

This month: Electability. 

The idea of electability is always a subtext of political campaigns. At some level, voters want to support winners – and even if your dream candidate is running, he or she isn’t likely to earn your support if that contender’s campaign is a purely quixotic effort.

In the 2020 cycle the issue of electability seems to have taken an oversized role in selecting the Democratic nominee. This could be a bit of post-traumatic stress after losing in 2016 and a brooding fear that if they don’t get it right, President Trump could win again.

Or it is a natural byproduct of our news cycle, in which everyone is a pundit talking more about the horserace than any of the policy positions and attributes of the candidates themselves.

Either way, electability has come to center stage in this Democratic primary election, with surveys repeatedly finding that voters just want someone who can beat President Trump in the general election.

The problem is there are different views of what that means, and voting strategically doesn’t really work if voters doesn’t agree what is strategic.

The debate about electability among political professionals is whether it is best to elect a nominee who can most appeal to the partisan base – particularly those low-turnout base voters – and compel them to vote in an election they might otherwise skip, or select a nominee who is more moderate and can pull over independents and some small number of voters from the other party.

The moderate strategy makes a lot of intuitive sense, and it was the strategy used by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2018.

There is some research that finds candidates who are far out on the extremes rarely win elections that otherwise would be competitive.

But the strategy of building a campaign out of a highly motivated base has also been very successful.

Republican strategist Karl Rove became highly identified with this campaign focus after the 2004 Bush-Cheney victory, which was built on a foundation of highly conservative turnout. But, of course, that coalition didn’t succeed in 2008.

The moderate strategy makes a lot of intuitive sense, and it was the strategy used by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2018 as they worked to take back the House.

But there are also a lot of “middle of the road” candidates who have failed to win elections – think high profile Democratic presidential nominees John Kerry and Al Gore, or Republican moderates like John McCain and Mitt Romney.

They ended up with a nominee who was focused entirely on the base – one that pushed the idea appealing to the extremes to a new level.

The Republican Party establishment had a kind of strategic whiplash in 2016 as it tried to pivot away from the base strategy. 

After studying the demographics of a changing nation, the establishment Republican leadership and major donors began 2016 with a new electoral blueprint of trying to piece together a “win from the middle” strategy by expanding outreach to Latinos and hoping for a nominee like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush who could potentially broaden the GOP’s base.

Yet they ended up with a nominee who was focused entirely on the base – one that pushed the idea appealing to the extremes to a new level – and they won.

In California in 2018, we had an interesting example of these two philosophies at work in neighboring Orange County congressional districts. 

In the 45th district, we saw Elizabeth Warren protégé Katie Porter, running from the left flank, win her race. Next door, however, former Republican business owner-turned-Democrat Harley Rouda took the moderate path and won in the 48th district.

The current beneficiary of the “electability” argument is former Vice President Joe Biden

An analysis of precinct-level data suggests that both candidates won by taking advantage of their particular strategy.  Looking at precincts with similar partisan composition, we can see that Rouda did better than Porter among districts with higher Republican registration, but Porter did better among independents.  Porter also did better turning out voters in highly Democratic precincts, and better among voters with no party preference (NPP) — a factor that could be key in a part of the state where NPPs are more likely to be younger, Latino, and more progressive. 

In the end, both Rouda and Porter won in previously Republican seats by similar margins.

A sample of just two elections might not be a definitive voting analysis, but it does show that both strategies can be successful in similar elections in adjacent districts in the same election cycle.

While there seem to be arguments on both sides of this strategic coin, the current beneficiary of the “electability” argument is former Vice President Joe Biden, who has been riding a “I am best able to beat Trump” message to the top of the polling average and to the top of Capitol Weekly’s tracking in four of the last five months.

While Biden is ahead with a message that is almost entirely about electability, the fact is that the majorities of voters for each of the top 5 candidates appear to believe that their candidate meets that threshold in one way or another.

For Biden, it is based on his appeal to the middle, while supporters of the other candidates are looking at their ability to energize their base or turnout voters who might stay home. 

Within the CA120 tracking survey, voters were asked “how much is your first choice candidate shaped by who you think would be the most electable?”  In this question, 78% of Biden voters identify this as a high priority – only 5% of his supporter say that the electability question is no part of their thinking process. This can be compared to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren for whom only 43% of voters identify electability as highly important.

Choice based on “Electability”

Initial Vote

High Importance

Moderate / Little Importance

None at all

Biden

78%

17%

5%

Sanders

58%

30%

12%

Warren

43%

46%

11%

Harris

59%

36%

5%

Buttigieg

45%

45%

10%

Looking even deeper, we asked, “If you didn’t have to worry about electability – you were guaranteed that the person you chose for President would win, who would be your first choice?“ Here we can see that voters shift to supporting Warren, who gets a 2.6% bump in the poll, while at the other end of the spectrum, Biden loses nearly 9% and drops to fourth place.

Change in candidate choice based on electability

Don’t think about electability

Initial Presidential Choice

Elizabeth Warren

19.8%

17.3%

+2.6%

Bernie Sanders

19.5%

18.2%

+1.3%

Kamala Harris

17.1%

16.4%

+0.7%

Joe Biden

15.5%

24.1%

-8.6%

Peter Buttigieg

13.1%

10.9%

+2.2%

This is among all voters. But what if we just looked at them candidate-by-candidate? What if we just looked at Kamala Harris supporters, for example, on the first question and then tracked how many of her initial supporters switched on a ballot where they weren’t considering electability?

Using this metric, Bernie Sanders voters appear to hold strongest with their candidate, with only 23% selecting a different candidate when they can be assured their choice would win. At the other end of the spectrum, more than half of Biden’s voters select an alternative choice when the concern about electability was lifted.

Support when unconcerned about electability

Initial Support

Biden

Buttigieg

Harris

Sanders

Warren

Others

Biden

48%

8%

9%

5%

8%

21%

Buttigieg

3%

67%

6%

3%

10%

12%

Harris

5%

6%

64%

4%

8%

12%

Sanders

3%

1%

3%

77%

5%

10%

Warren

2%

4%

6%

8%

71%

10%

What does this all mean?

The fact is that voters are now, potentially more than ever, thinking about their election choices based not just on who they prefer, but who they think they should support when putting on their own political pundit hat and looking toward a general election against Donald Trump.

But voters really don’t have any crystal ball to determine who would be best in November 2020.  Some believe that an older straight white male is what can best counter President Trump, while others believe that this election requires a person of color, a woman, or a historic LGBT nominee to spark Democratic turnout.

To adopt a sports metaphor, half of your team could be thinking “pass” and the others thinking “run.” Both could be winning strategies, but neither works if the players aren’t all on the same plan.

And therein is the rub. It is possible that one segment of the electorate likes Joe Biden but won’t support him because they don’t believe he can energize the Democratic base, while another segment of the electorate is giving up on their first choice because they are afraid a person of color, woman or LGBT candidate can’t win. 

Collectively their “strategic voting” is nullifying itself, with the only real result being that voters are not voting in a way that is simply expressive of who they would like to see win.

If we voters don’t agree on what electability means, there is still one radical option: throw away that pundit hat and vote for whoever you want.  It sounds simple, but it is something that large chunks of electorate have seemed to lose touch with.

Editor’s Note: Paul Mitchell, a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly, is the creator of the CA120 column, vice president of Political Data and owner of Redistricting Partners, a political strategy firm. 

 


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