Electability And The People Each Candidate Attracts

Prior to the 2006 election the Democrats had been a minority part for quite a while. They often managed to come close in presidential elections and when out of power in Congress often only needed a handful of seats, but the Republicans edged them out most years. To become the majority party did not require a massive realignment. All that was really necessary was for Democrats to pick up one new group of voters. In 2008 electability may also come down to which candidate can best add new voters to the traditional core Democratic voters.

There is more than one path to such electoral success as there is more than one group which might potentially be added. When people speak of electability they also have biases as to which direction they want the party to go. I’ve written many posts here and in previous blogs regarding the Democrats adopting a more socially liberal, anti-war, and economically pragmatic viewpoint to pick up affluent professionals who were dissatisfied with the Republicans. Of course this is biased by the fact that I’m a socially liberal, anti-war, economically pragmatic, affluent professional and would naturally prefer to see either political party reflect my views.

There’s clearly a much better chance that the Democrats as opposed to the Republicans would follow such a path, and being seen this way was one of the factors contributing to the Democratic victory in 2006. Many independents and moderate Republicans (such as the Starbucks Republicans) turned to the Democrats in response to the GOP’s move to the right on social issues and their support for the war.

This is also playing out in this year’s nomination battle, as it has in the past. The Clintons, representing the socially-conservative economically populist wing of the party won in 1992. Paul Tsongas represented the socially liberal economically pragmatic wing and was no match politically for the Clintons. This year Hillary Clinton continues to represent the socially conservative populist wing, but this year the dynamic is quite unusual. The socially liberal, economically pragmatic wing is represented by Barack Obama. Obama, although starting out as the insurgent candidate, had advantages which insurgent candidates generally do not. Most significantly, he brings the support of black voters and he has the charisma to bring in far more independent voters than most Democratic candidates are capable of. In normal years the establishment candidate quickly knocks off the insurgent, but Obama will probably accomplish what most insurgent candidates cannot do by uniting the black voters with the affluent educated socially liberal voters. The internet further changes the dynamic, allowing Obama to raise funds to compete in a manner which would not have been possible in the past.

Obama will probably win the Democratic nomination with this coalition. Clinton hopes that she can still win by getting the superdelegates to consider electability, but only on her terms. The Clinton supporters have the electability argument all wrong when they claim that their big state victories makes Hillary more electable. The “big state” argument is fallacious as general election campaigns are nothing like primary campaigns. Winning a primary does not mean the candidate has a better chance at winning the general election. Obama does better than Clinton in many head to head polls against McCain in the big states which Clinton won. Steve Benen wrote more on the problems with the “big state” argument.

The problem with all the arguments with regards to Clinton’s electability is that Clinton does well with core Democratic voters but has difficulty bringing in additional voters. Clinton can win in the big Democratic states but so can Obama. The difference is that Obama can win bring in new voters and win elsewhere. Norm Scheiber breaks down the different groups which each candidate might add to the Democratic base:

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking, as the Clinton campaign argues, that Hillary is a better general election candidate because the groups she’s winning in the primary more closely resemble the groups Democrats need in November. But, even if you accept that premise for the sake of argument*, the relevant question isn’t: Which demographic groups is each candidate winning the primary? The relevant question is: Which candidate is most likely to win the general-election version of their primary coalition (assuming they more or less hang on to the Democratic supporters of their primary opponent)?

In concrete terms, Hillary’s primary coalition consists of working-class people, seniors, and women. Obama’s consists of African-Americans, younger voters, and affluent/educated voters. Set aside African-Americans, who aren’t really a swing group. The question then becomes: 1.) How likely is Hillary to win non-Democratic working-class people, non-Democratic seniors, and non-Democratic women? 2.) How likely is Obama to win non-Democratic young people and non-Democratic affluent/ educated people? With the possible exception of women, I’d say the likelihood of 2.) is greater than the likelihood of 1.).

You can obviously disagree with me. But you should understand that, if you think Hillary is more electable, you’re basically saying that likelihood 1.) is greater than 2.). (Unless, of course, you think Obama will suffer big defections among working-class Democrats, Democratic women, and Democratic seniors if he’s the nominee. But that’s a different argument, and I’m skeptical of it for the reasons Matt lays out.)

*There are really two broad swing groups: one working-class, the other affluent. In principle, you could win the general by winning one or the other, or some combination of the two.

Clinton has the Democratic base but unless she can add to this we risk returning to the situation in which the Democrats were a minority party. Obama can expand the base by bringing in affluent, educated, socially liberal voters who can no longer support the Republicans due to their views on social issues and the war. Hillary Clinton will have difficulty bringing in such voters. With her poor record on civil liberties issues, social issues, and her support for the war, Clinton gives socially liberal affluent voters little reason to back her.

To get educated, affluent liberals to vote against our economic interests it is necessary to be seen as offering something significant in return on issues we care about, but Clinton is far too often on the wrong side. It is possible that with current distaste for the GOP that Clinton could still win, but there’s also a strong risk that the election will be seen, and portrayed by the media, as one between a dishonest liberal and an honest centrist. That’s a tough election to win.


  1. 1
    NatetheGrate says:

    Much as I like Barak Obama and admire what he’s been able to accomplish so far, it seems to me the only ways the Democrats can lose in November is to either run Hillary Clinton (astonishgly polarizing) or (sorry to say) run the black guy. Most outposts in the blogosphere seem liberal enough to vote for Obama, but I have my doubts as to whether the country is. Does anyone think a third candidate can unite the party if the top two are incapable of getting a majority of the delegates?

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    Putting aside any disagreements with regards to electability, to answer the question as to a third candidate having a chance this is very unlikely.

    I think that it is very unlikely that Obama will not get the nomination at this time and if he doesn’t the nomination will go to Clinton. It would take something really remarkable to change this. Even if a scandal arose which made the party unwilling to nominate one I think the other would then get the nomination.

    The one situation I could see where theoretically some would want a third choice would be if Clinton went so negative she managed to make Obama unelectable, but in the process also made herself unacceptable.

    Even if they wanted someone else, the problem then becomes who. Obama and Clinton did so much better in the primaries than anyone else that it would be hard to make one of the other candidates this year the candidate. They would have to turn to some other leader in the party.

    The most obvious choice would be Gore. However I have my doubts that party leaders concerned about electability would be comfortable with this except as a last resort since we have not seen Gore campaign this year. In the past Gore has been mixed as a candidate. Many of us think that Gore would do much better than in the past but without having campaigned recently this is still a gamble.

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