In the 2020 primary, Democrats face the same task that every party does in every race: to nominate someone who both represents them and can win. At this crossroads for the party, polling, demographic data, past election results and other data can help us answer challenging questions about what Democrats think, who they are as a party and who they like to vote for. But the “and can win” part — the elusive “electability” — is even tougher.
Electability often feels semi-subjective and hard to nail down, making it easy for people to substitute their biases in for judgment and awkwardly roll together separate discussions about ideology, demographics and representation. That result is a confusing conversation around a genuinely important concept.
Fortunately, we can talk about electability in a smarter, more substantive way.
We can use data to take apart different aspects of electability and get a better idea of which 2020 candidates are — or aren’t — “electable.” This series of posts will tackle parts of that equation, including past election results, demographics, ideology and style.
We’ll start with observed electability — basically the theory that if a candidate did well in major down-ballot elections compared to an appropriate baseline, they’re doing something right and might perform strongly in a general election. We’ll start by looking at the 2018 elections because, by an odd coincidence, most of the top tier of the Democratic field ran in a Senate race last year.
This graphic compares each 2018 Democratic Senate candidate’s win or loss margin with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 margin of victory or loss in that state, with a black break-even line. Democratic candidates far above the black line overperformed Clinton’s margin by a lot. The basic idea is that big gains are a good sign regardless of whether a politician runs in a red or blue state — they suggest that those candidates have some appeal that a replacement-level Democratic candidate doesn’t.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) is the obvious queen of this graphic. Clinton won Minnesota by a margin of 1.5 points in 2016, and Klobuchar won the state in 2018 by 24.1 points. Klobuchar had some advantages over Clinton: Public opinion was much better for Democrats in 2018 than 2016, and incumbent senators do get a boost. But it’s impossible to explain that gap away without attributing some real electability to her.
Former congressman Beto O’Rourke also looks pretty good in this graphic despite having a lot of stylistic differences with Klobuchar. He didn’t outperform Clinton by as much as Klobuchar (Clinton lost Texas by nine points, O’Rourke lost by less than three), but he was running against Republican incumbent Ted Cruz. If you give Cruz something like a five-point bonus for being a sitting senator (incumbents tend to outperform non-incumbents, though calculating the incumbency bonus is tricky — they change over time and can be calculated more than one way), then O’Rourke’s performance starts to look much more impressive.
By contrast, Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) is often touted as electable, but he hasn’t posted the same eye-popping margins that Klobuchar has.
In 2012 (a year not shown in the graphic), Brown won reelection by six points, while President Barack Obama won the state by three. That’s not a huge gap — if you give Brown a normal incumbency bonus, you can explain the gap without attributing any extra electability to Brown.
Brown obviously outperformed Clinton by a lot more in 2018 — he won by almost seven points in a state where she lost by eight in 2016. But if you again give Brown an incumbency bonus and account for the big swing in overall public opinion (the GOP won the House popular vote by a point in 2016 and lost it by about nine in 2018), you can explain a significant amount of this gap. Moreover, if you were to use 2012 and 2016 results as the baseline, Brown would look worse, because Obama performed much better in Ohio than Clinton did.
That’s not to say that Brown does badly on this graphic. He’s a solid politician, and I firmly believe he would be president if he had been nominated in 2016. But on this scale, he doesn’t do quite as well as Klobuchar, and some of his competitors are closer to him here than they might be in other categories.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), for example, won her 2018 race by 34 points after Clinton won her state by 22.5 points. That’s not as good as Brown, but electability is a sliding scale with fuzzy categories, so we should think in those terms and not simply categorize Brown as “electable” and Gillibrand as “not.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) is a funkier case. He won his 2018 race by 40 points after Clinton won Vermont in 2016 by 26 points. But we should hold off on the “Bernie would have won!” chants — we’re going to have a lot more to say on him in subsequent pieces on ideology and demographics.
The only candidate who objectively performs poorly is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), who somehow managed to underperform Clinton despite 2018 being a much better year for Democrats than 2016. Massachusetts is a politically complicated state, electing a parade of Republican governors and Democratic senators, but it’s hard to look at this performance (or some of the other indicators) and spin it as a great sign.
There are a few top-tier potential presidential candidates who aren’t on this graphic — Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and former vice president Joe Biden.
Booker is a more straightforward case — he won his first full term by 13.5 points in 2014, after Obama won the state by 18 points in 2012. Republicans did much better in 2014 than in 2012. (Republicans lost the House popular vote by a point in 2012 but won the House popular vote by six points in 2014.) If we give Booker a small incumbency bonus because, due to his victory in a 2013 special election, voters didn’t have much time to get to know him, that puts his result in general range we’d expect from a replacement-level Democrat.
Harris is tougher. Because of California’s nonpartisan primary system, which pits the top two vote-getters of any party against each other in the general election, she ran against another Democrat in her 2016 race. As a result, we can’t really compare her performance to that of the other senators. She won two elections for California attorney general, but it’s hard to compare results from a down-ballot state-level position to those of a Senate race.
And Biden is arguably a trickier case. Everyone in the political world feels like they know Biden since he was vice president for eight years, but it has been a decade since he has been on the ballot as an individual. So we don’t really know if post-vice-presidency Biden would have a different sort of appeal than pre-vice-presidency Biden. Being vice president obviously improved his primary performance — he’s leading in the polls now after flopping in the 1988 and 2008 primaries for president. But the general election is a different animal, and we’ll have to tackle him in more detail in future posts.
Observed electability isn’t a perfect concept, and it doesn’t predict everything about an election. It measures how candidates performed in their own states, not nationwide. And the context of a specific national election matters, too. Klobuchar’s Midwestern practicality might contrast favorably with someone as erratic as Trump, but someone with that style might not have done so well against someone like George H.W. Bush. Warren’s numbers weren’t great last cycle, but her populist style might work well against a (possibly) mid-recession billionaire Republican. Most importantly, election fundamentals (such as the economy) are going to exert a lot of influence on the outcome, and candidates can only bend that so much.
But if you want to figure out who is (and isn’t) electable, it’s probably best to start with how candidates perform in real elections rather than turning electability into some magical intangible.