The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The one big reason neither Donald Trump nor Bernie Sanders can keep this up

Supporters hold modified Robin Hood faces of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) while waiting for the start of the Netroots Nation 2015 Presidential Town Hall in the Phoenix Convention Center July 18, in Phoenix. (Photo by Charlie Leight/Getty Images)

Basically nobody who follows politics in any depth thinks either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders could be elected our next president.

And yet here we are, with the unelectables rising to the top of their parties’ polls. Trump leads basically every GOP poll of the 2016 race, and Sanders – an independent socialist senator from Vermont – just crested Hillary Clinton in his very first poll in New Hampshire.

So how is it possible that the chattering classes are still giving them almost no chance – not only to win the presidency, but even their parties' nominations?

There’s actually a very good reason: It’s because people do care about electability. They just don’t care about it yet.

Witness this new poll showing Sanders leading Clinton in New Hampshire. The poll, from Franklin Pierce University, shows just 7 percent of people say being the most electable is their top criterion. On the GOP side, just 3 percent says it's their top criterion. In both parties, about six in 10 emphasize the issues, first and foremost.

Similarly, last month’s national Washington Post-ABC News poll showed picking a candidate who “has the best chance of winning” was the top priority for just 3 percent Republican- and Demcoratic-leaning voters. 3 percent!

So it’s not-so-surprising to see a candidate like Sanders (or Trump) rise to the top.

Voters are actually pretty smart in that they know these guys probably can't win. A June Monmouth poll showed 59 percent of Democratic voters said Sanders would have a worse chance than Clinton; only 13 percent thought he'd have a better chance. A CBS News poll last month, meanwhile, showed 78 percent of Democratic voters said Clinton was their most electable candidate, while just 5 percent said that of Sanders. That's even as 17 percent supported Sanders.

So clearly, even his supporters know the deal. They just don't care -- at this stage.

But unfortunately for Sanders and Trump, this lack of focus on electability is very unlikely last. That’s because, as the election nears, the stakes become clearer. Casual voters suddenly become quite interested in actually winning in November.

Case in point: While these early polls show the percentage of voters who say winning is their top priority in the single digits, exit polling in the 2012 GOP primaries showed it was the most important factor for those voters. About four in 10 GOP primary voters – 39 percent – said it was their top priority, and this demographic’s overwhelming support was big reason Mitt Romney won the GOP nomination. (These exit polls were conducted across 20 states; not every state had one.)

And while six in 10 New Hampshire voters currently cite the issues as being most important to them, the same 2012 exit polls showed just 16 percent of GOP primary voters said the most important factor in their vote was nominating a "true conservative."

Now, a lot of that could have been due to Republican enthusiasm for unseating President Obama, who clearly rubbed the GOP faithful the wrong way. And part of it could have been about Romney, whose front-runner status and moderate past made electability his bread and butter. Republicans clearly weren't enamored of him, but he was about the only candidate who seemed likely to get the job done.

But it's also clear that voters, when they headed to the polls in early 2012, were much more concerned about electability than they are right now.

And 2012 was hardly the first election featuring this phenomenon. Back in 2004 another Massachusetts politician, John Kerry, emerged as the pragmatic Democratic pick to defeat President George W. Bush, even as he excited few people along the way. Kerry's defeat of the early, more-liberal favorite, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, led to the famous bumper sticker: "Dated Dean, Married Kerry."

Today, Republicans are dating Trump, but the likelihood that they'll tie the knot remains remote. The same thing happened in 2012 when they dated Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and even Rick Santorum before settling down with the guy you could take home to mom and dad, Romney.

(Has this metaphor gone far enough yet? Yeah, I thought so.)

And are Republicans who are terrified of another Clinton administration really going to nominate a candidate who is viewed unfavorably by two-thirds of the electorate, as Trump is? Are Democrats going to nominate a socialist with whom they might agree more than Clinton but who, well, is a SOCIALIST.

The answer to those questions is almost definitely not. Unless, that is, both sides decide to nominate their unelectable candidates in hopes that the other side does the same. And then we can all just throw all of this political prognosticating out the window and brace for what comes next.

But don’t expect it.