The Electability Counterfactual

In Pennsylvania, the biggest delegate prize on Tuesday, April 26, 11 percent of Democratic primary voters indicated in exit polls that “electability” was the “candidate quality” they cared about most.  Of those voters, 83 percent cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton.

The results were similar in Connecticut and Maryland and have been pretty consistent throughout the entire country; the 8 to 21 percent of voters who value electability more than anything else have overwhelmingly voted for Clinton in every state in which exit polling is available except Vermont (where Clinton got “only” 50 percent of the votes based on this criterion).  The strongly held belief among Democratic primary voters – at least, those Democratic primary voters who care most about the electability criterion – seems to be that Clinton is more likely than Bernie Sanders to win a head-to-head general election matchup.

This belief, however, is completely at odds with the evidence.  Polling data and voting results clearly imply that Sanders would match up better against any of the Republican candidates than Clinton would.  If voters who cared about electability had been aware of this evidence when voting, Sanders could very well be on his way to wrapping up the Democratic nomination (rather than facing a very narrow, though not impossible, path to victory).

I don’t personally value perceived electability very much: I care more about candidate records and values, electability often ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy and, given that it requires speculation about numerous unknown factors, electability cannot be gauged with certainty.  But I’ve written about it during this election cycle both because there are people who do care and because a fact-free media narrative about electability has been sowing misinformation among Democratic primary voters.

Head-to-head polling matchups against potential Republican candidates are the most direct evidence we have on the question of electability.  As the graph below illustrates, those polls clearly favor Sanders, and they’ve done so since before voters in the first primary state (Iowa) headed to their caucus locations.

Head-to-Head Polls

Pundits continue to insist, as they have for months, that these poll results are “meaningless” (or, at best, that they “overstate [Sanders’] general-election prospects”).  They argue that Sanders “hasn’t been attacked” yet by Republicans and that, if attacks began to air, “his advantage over [Clinton] would disappear.”  Yet Sanders has been attacked by the GOP; Donald Trump has been calling Sanders a “maniac” and “communist” for the last six months, Right-wing media outlets have been telling people that, under Sanders, “your paycheck will feel the Bern,” and Future 45, a Republican Super PAC, launched an ad campaign back in February intended “to start educating Americans about [Sanders’] out-of-touch record.”  In fact, the “glaring [general election] vulnerabilities” one columnist described Sanders as having back in February – being old, being labeled a “socialist,” and wanting to raise taxes – are all things that Hillary Clinton and/or her surrogates have already attacked him for during the primary season.

GOP operatives would surely intensify their attacks on Sanders if he became the Democratic nominee.  But the fact of the matter is that head-to-head polling in April is often predictive of general election outcomes and that, in spite of numerous attacks leveled against him over the past few months, Sanders’ popularity has continued to rise steadily.  Clinton’s popularity, as the chart below shows, has been consistently headed in the opposite direction.

Favorability

In addition, young voters, who “arguably won both the 2008 and 2012 elections for Barack Obama,” prefer Sanders to Clinton by very large margins.  So do Independents.  If the Democrats want to secure these critical voting blocs in November, the next two graphs strongly suggest that they’d be best off with Bernie Sanders as their nominee.

Youth

Independents

In short, the electability evidence overwhelmingly favors Sanders, and most voters who have seen it, as I’ve been unsurprised to discover while phone banking and canvassing on Sanders’ behalf, find it convincing.  The problem is that most people haven’t seen it and/or have been told, erroneously, that it doesn’t matter; that’s the most likely explanation for the exit poll results we’ve seen thus far.

Just for fun, I decided to see what the election would look like in an alternate universe, one in which this evidence was widely available to all voters.  Those who prioritized electability would at the very least split evenly between the two candidates, but would more likely vote for Sanders in margins as large as those by which, in the actual results, they’ve broken for Clinton.

Holding every other voter’s preferences constant, these scenarios would have drastically shifted election outcomes.  If voters prioritizing electability had been equally as likely to break for Sanders, Sanders would have won Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Nevada.  Clinton’s pledged delegate lead would have fallen from 287 to 129, a total that would have been viewed as surmountable.  And if Sanders dominated among these voters, he would have won New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania as well.  As the graph below shows, increased awareness of electability evidence could very well have put Sanders ahead of Clinton by 83 pledged delegates.

Electability What-If

In other words, if the facts on electability had been publicized and everything else had remained constant, Sanders might today be the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.

That’s obviously a huge “if” and it doesn’t in any way change reality: Clinton is winning big and time is running out.  But electability hypotheticals provide some insight into how the 2016 Democratic primary process, like far too many of our public debates, has been driven more by misleading media narratives than by the facts.

I know, I know – as Sanders likes to remind us, “telling the truth” is considered a “radical idea” in American politics.  But as his candidacy has also underscored, that certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.

Update (6/5/16): Adam Johnson has thoroughly debunked “The Myth That Sanders Hasn’t Been Criticized.”

3 Comments

Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System

3 responses to “The Electability Counterfactual

  1. AW

    The polls that the pundits are now dismissing as meaningless are the very ones that they cited as proof that Bernie should end his futile campaign before a single vote was cast, late last year.

  2. Monte Kitchens

    Nice article on Jill Stein on Vox. Thank you

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