As the Invisible Primary of 2016 intensifies and candidates refine their appeals, a key issue will be their ability to convince caucus and primary voters that they’ve got the stuff to defeat the hated partisan foe. That’s all the more urgent as events—from the U.S. Supreme Court to Vienna—conspire to make this a truly high-stakes election.
“Electability” is a hardy perennial of every nominating contest, though it’s occasionally derided by the more ideological partisans of the left and right who view it as an excuse for “selling out” sacred principles at the behest of soulless pollsters and weak-minded swing voters. To more refined political palates, the issue is getting the maximum ideological bang for one’s political buck. Among Republicans, there’s even a name for that calculation: the Buckley Rule (after William F. Buckley III), which holds that the GOP should nominate for president the most conservative candidate who can reasonably be expected to win.
The most traditional test of “electability” is the so-called Median Voter Theorem, whereby ideally a political party and its candidates should position themselves as closely as possible to the views and principles of voters at the precise center of the partisan or ideological spectrum. This theorem is the political science source of all the “move to the center” strategies political professionals talk about. It does make some sense mathematically, since winning over a sure-but-undecided voter gives you a vote while denying one to your opponent. But “moving to the center” can sacrifice other opportunities to mobilize marginal voters, and rather obviously reduces the ideological “payoff” for victory.
Still, one first-tier Republican candidate, Jeb Bush, is already making a “move to the center” argument for his electability, or so it would seem from his famous statement that you have to be willing to “lose the primary to win the general.” Thus he expects conservatives to forgive him his heresies on immigration policy and education because he reasons his positions are going to send a signal to swing voters that he’s not a strict ideologue. Marco Rubio is making a similar pitch based on the slightly different basis of his youth and his much-broadcast interest in new ideas (undercut a bit by his strong interest in old ideas like boycotting Cuba, but nobody’s perfect!). And one might expect that if they can get a viable campaign on track, John Kasich, Chris Christie and Lindsey Graham (who has a legitimately established record of bipartisanship on domestic issues to balance his militarist shrieking on foreign and defense policy) might do the same.
I wouldn’t be surprised if an encyclopedia entry on the Median Voter Theorem included a photo of Bill Clinton, so you might expect his wife to tout her centrist swing-voter-friendly credentials as well. But the climate of opinion among early-state Democratic voters at the moment is definitely not friendly to a “move to the center.” Still, if Bernie Sanders’ recent threat to her nomination continues to gain strength, it is certain Clinton and various surrogates will raise electability contrasts with the Vermonter, especially if they can be supported with polling data (pollsters are just now beginning to take Sanders seriously enough to include him in general election trial heats).
The safest kind of electability arguments are based not on ideological positioning but on demographic or geographic factors. As it happens, Floridians Bush and Rubio have almost identical claims to be strong in that critical purple state, and also to have a superior ability to attract Latino voters (Bush because of his Spanish fluency and Mexican-American wife and Rubio because of his own Cuban-American heritage—not a factor that fellow Cuban-American or Cuban-Canadian-American Ted Cruz seems to have much interest in pursuing).
Interest in Kasich is heavily based on the assumption he could carry Ohio. There may even be Ben Carson supporters who assume he’d break the Democratic monopoly on African-Americans. And the case for Hillary Clinton’s electability is based on the belief she should be able to make up for any losses among young and minority voters particularly attached to Barack Obama by over-performing with women.
Another approach to electability is to propose that the candidate has special characteristics that will enable her or him to create a new, mindblowing coalition that transcends the usual partisan attachments. That claim is central to Rand Paul’s campaign, which would have Republicans believe they can reverse their dreadful standing with Millennials (and perhaps even some minority voters) by embracing his emphasis on privacy and his reluctance to support military adventures abroad. There’s perhaps a hint of the same proposition in the hopes of Bernie Sanders supporters that his old-time working-class values can win back some of the white-non-college-educated constituency that’s practically become the GOP’s base, whereas Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee seem to think they can increase their party’s hold on these voters with some unorthodox “populist” positions.
The mirror image of the Median Voter Theorem is the belief that a clear, ideologically consistent position is the most successful strategy because it “energizes” the party base, engages tuned-out voters, and gives swing voters the sharp partisan differentiation they need to make up their minds. Unsurprisingly, to the extent that strongly ideological conservatives and liberals prioritize electability (as they seem prepared to do in 2016), this is the strategy they often prefer.
Among supporters of Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Donald Trump and probably others, it’s taken for granted that “discouraged” conservatives cost the GOP the White House in 2012 and possibly even 2008. But Scott Walker has the most direct “turn right to win” argument: expressed as “You don’t win the center by running to the center.” He argues very forthrightly that swing voters respect “principles and leadership” more than centrist positioning, but his trump card is his own electoral record in Wisconsin. In a refrain that Iowa Republicans will soon be hearing in their sleep, Walker won three elections in four years in a state Obama won twice, not by “running to the center” or compromising his “principles” but by going after the beating heart of the opposition. That would be public-sector unions and university professors, the very people conservatives demonize as the face of Big Government.
Walker’s critics will point out that deceiving voters about his plans was also part of his formula for success, and that all three of his election wins were in non-presidential contests where the landscape strongly favored Republicans, unlike 2016. But his argument has the advantage of supplying data (albeit arguable data) to what conservative voters really, really want to believe in the first place. So at this point it may be the most powerful electability argument in either party’s field.
At some point, of course, “arguments” about electability will be undermined or buttressed by objective polling data and how well candidates do in securing caucus and primary voters. If polls of Wisconsin keep showing Scott Walker being trounced by Hillary Clinton, his electability claims are accordingly weakened. Similarly, if Hillary Clinton can’t “put away” Bernie Sanders in the early states, then assumptions about her general election strength could unravel. And on the Republican side with its vast field, a lot of theoretically “electable” candidates are not going to survive for very long, beginning with the first debate next month when it appears seven candidates will be consigned to a midday kiddie-table event. But the arguments will continue among the survivors, because this is an election both breeds of political animals really want to win, perhaps up to and beyond the point of self-deception.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.