In 2020 Democratic Primary, “Electability” Plays Irrational and Ambiguous Role

By Francis Northwood (PO ’21)

Electability means many things to many people. With the Democratic Party’s 2020 rollout nearly finished, the task at hand for most of the candidates is to separate themselves from a packed crowd. Normally, there are not this many qualified candidates (save for the last Republican primary), but with such a large pool, it allows for greater insight into what voters are looking for in their chosen candidate. A recent Monmouth poll decided to figure out just that. After Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, a large portion of the Democratic electorate realized that its priority was not to find a candidate who fits their exact views, but rather a candidate who could beat Trump. The Monmouth poll posed people with two options: a candidate who they agree with but will have a hard time beating Trump, and a candidate who they did not agree with but will have an easier time beating Trump; 56% took the latter and 33% the former. While, yes, due to the overwhelming policy uniformity of the candidate pool, Democratic voters might think that “disagree” means something minute (perhaps a different approach to the Green New Deal), the poll has some definite implications. Democratic voters want a candidate who is electable. Yet, the stats do not show that.

A recent Emerson poll (a B+ pollster according to poll aggregator 538) has the top five candidates polling in the primary as:

  1. Joe Biden, 26%
  2. Bernie Sanders, 26%
  3. Kamala Harris, 12%
  4. Beto O’Rourke, 11%
  5. Elizabeth Warren, 8%

The same poll had these results for the previous five candidates going against Trump:

  1. Joe Biden, +10
  2. Kamala Harris, +4
  3. Elizabeth Warren, +2
  4. Bernie Sanders, +2
  5. Beto O’Rourke, -2


Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke are the two candidates of notice here. Beto, despite nearly being tied with Kamala in primary polling, fairs by far the worst of any of the five candidates in the general election poll. Bernie also drops from one to four, tying with Warren, who polled a distant fifth in the primary polling. The two biggest gainers in general election polling were Kamala and Warren. There seems to be a trend starting to appear here: white men are polling better in the primary polling but worse in the general election, yet the opposite is true for women. Recent polling in the swing states of Michigan and Wisconsin further supports this, for—due to electoral college trends—those state elections will likely determine the presidency.

Michigan (Emerson) General Election, Democrats vs. Trump:

  1. Joe Biden, +8
  2. Amy Klobuchar, +6
  3. Bernie Sanders, +5
  4. Elizabeth Warren, +2
  5. Kamala Harris, +2

Wisconsin (Emerson) General Election, Democrats vs Trump:

  1. Joe Biden, +9
  2. Bernie Sanders, +4
  3. Elizabeth Warren, +4
  4. Beto O’Rourke, +2
  5. Amy Klobuchar, +1


In these two recent swing-state polls, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar pulls into the top five, despite being a distant tenth in the original Democratic primary national poll. Again, a woman who is relatively electable (in relation to the rest of the primary field) but does not come close to polling well with a Democratic electorate—an electorate that is supposedly interested in their candidate’s electability. The clear discrepancy in what voters say they wants versus what voters seem to want can be answered two ways:


Democratic voters are answering irrationally


It is perhaps true that left-wing voters say they want electability, but in fact want something else. Indeed, this is true for other supposedly-desired qualities found in candidates. Democratic voters want someone under 70 who has decades of political experience, yet Biden, Bernie, and Beto do not fit those criteria. Jay Inslee fits the criteria, but is polling a distant 12th in the original Emerson poll. It may be that voters say they want electability, but really do not care.


Democratic voters are misinformed on what “electability” means


The other option is that the Democratic electorate is mistaken in their understanding of electability. There have been 43 white men in the Oval Office, and, to many, that is what a traditional, electable, candidate might look like. Despite the fact that Klobuchar and Warren both are electable—in the strict sense that they poll well against Trump in the general election—they do not look like the traditional candidate.


Whether it is irrationality or misperception, voters’ candidate preferences clearly do not match what they say they look for in a candidate. Perhaps, however, it is too much to ask voters to understand what electable means in its truest sense—that is, which candidate’s are most popular and most likely to win 270 electoral votes. Maybe voters have a different view of electability—where they think that the polling on election day will reflect their supposed emphasis on electability much more, or the general election polling is just (currently) inaccurate. Perhaps, however, it is just too early to tell.

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