The Electability Myth

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

By this point in the presidential cycle, everyone who keeps up to date with the writings and opinions of political journalists have no doubt seen at least half a dozen articles about the perceived electability of all the 2020 Democratic frontrunners. Electability, as the media sees it, is based on the logic of the Median Voter Theorem, which basically says that the majority of voters exist within the boundaries of the political center. The candidate whose message most closely aligns with these centrist voters would therefore win the election over a more ideologically extreme candidate.

The Median Voter Theorem has always existed as a way to encourage the nomination of moderate candidates and push aside those who are more ideologically pure. In 2019 terms, it favors nominating Biden over Sanders or Warren.

The problem with the Median Voter Theorem, though, is that it hasn’t been relevant in decades. Back during a time when the electorate was less diverse, the theorem was a nice and simple way of explaining the blowout presidential elections of 1964 and 1972. Barry Goldwater and George McGovern were considered too far right and too far left, respectively, to defeat their more moderate opponents.

In the following decades, though, the voting population began to look far less homogenous and identity blocs began to form along lines of race, income, and education. These blocs all became loyal to one party or the other. By this point, both parties had built up such significant bases that moderate swing voters were no longer essential for winning elections.

There’s a phrase being used to describe Trump’s 2020 campaign strategy: all base, all the time. Trump and his new campaign manager Brad Parscale understand that the key to winning elections in the modern era is turning out your base of support on Election Day. Trump was considered too right wing to win in 2016, but he energized the Republican base far more than his predecessors did and pulled out a win against the odds.

To give you a clearer picture of how these bases work, I’ve included a Venn diagram on this page that shows how each major candidate’s base overlaps with each other. Trump, Biden, and Sanders all sport major popularity with the famous ‘white working class’ demographic. Warren overlaps with Sanders among the ‘very progressive’ demographic, while Buttigieg overlaps Warren with highly educated voters. I chose not to include Kamala Harris in this simply because her polling numbers have been in a nosedive for a few weeks. She still has roughly the same support as Buttigieg, but he’s been a little more consistent.

As I said before, the media believes that Biden has the best chance of beating Trump. It’s true that their bases overlap, which gives Biden the potential to ‘steal’ Trump votes. However, it’s hard to deny that the energy on the Democratic side is with Warren, whose support has been steadily rising since the day she announced and has the biggest rallies. Warren’s message clearly resonates with the Democratic base much in the same way that Trump’s did for the Republicans four years ago. So does this mean that Warren has the best chance to beat Trump?

There’s a little more to the story. Unlike Trump, Warren wasn’t the one who shifted the party’s Overton window of acceptable ideas. The wildly popular progressive platform originated with Sanders’ 2016 campaign that directly took on the party’s centrist establishment. Now, Warren and Sanders run on that exact same platform.

Based on the turnout theory, both Sanders and Warren could transform the party’s progressive energy into Election Day turnout. But here’s where the two theories converge. If you take a look back at the diagram, you’ll see that Warren’s base is nowhere close to overlapping Trump’s.  A hypothetical matchup between the two would be a turnout battle, and in that regard Trump has a more proven track record. Sanders, on the other hand, sits in a more advantageous position. His base overlaps with both Warren and Trump. On Election Day he can turn out progressives while also stealing some of the white working class votes that would have otherwise gone to Trump. If you’re a Democrat looking for the candidate with the best chance to beat Trump, Bernie Sanders is your guy.

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