February 3, 2020

Choosing a Primary Candidate Who Can Win

Iowa farm silos

When we approach presidential primary elections, I think that most of us are guided by two considerations:

  1. Which of the candidates would I most prefer as president?
  2. Which of the candidates has the best chance of winning the general election that follows the primary?
For some lucky voters, there is only one answer to both questions. The person they would most like to see as president is the person they think has the best chance of winning the general election. These voters have their candidate and can move on without worrying about anything else. This post is for the rest of us.

Answering question #1 is usually fairly easy. After all, this is really a question about us and our personal preferences. We may like multiple candidates, but we usually prefer one even if it is only by a slight margin. On the other hand, answering question #2 can be very difficult. The reality is that nobody knows the answer to this question, so all we can do is guess. Unfortunately, most people seem to base their guesses on considerations that fail to take into account how presidential elections actually work in the U.S. (i.e., the popular vote is next to meaningless, as only a handful of states decide our presidential elections). Remember, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 but lost the election because she did not win the states that mattered.

It is very tempting to pick out a candidate we like and claim that voter enthusiasm will propel them over the top in the general election. Just look at the social media buzz around them, the turnout at their rallies, and the intensity with which people seem to support them! But we have to be very careful when we do this to make sure we are focusing on their support relative to the other party in the key states. Getting a skewed picture is not helpful.

Many of us on the left, including me, would prefer to see one of the more progressive candidates win the Democratic primary in 2020 (e.g., Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders). But as tempting as it is to argue that one of these candidates would be more competitive against Donald Trump than anyone else, we need to remember that it is going to come down to how they perform in a few key states (e.g., Wisconsin, Pennsylvania) and not what the national polls might suggest.

Suppose for a moment that we finally had an open atheist running on the Democratic side. No matter how good this candidate looked during the primary contest, the party establishment and countless voters would express concern about whether an open atheist could possibly win the general election. Now suppose that we decided to focus primarily on California and New York. Polls in those states might tell us that this candidate's atheism was not much of an issue and that most voters would likely turn out to support them. It is easy to imagine moving forward to nominate this candidate and then losing the general election badly because the region of the country often referred to as the heartland was far from ready to support an atheist. Had we bothered to ask the people who lived there, they would have warned us. We didn't ask them, and now it is too late.

What is crazy-making here is how much emphasis we have to put on questions like, "But how competitive will this candidate be in Wisconsin?" This shouldn't matter, but it does as long as we cling to the electoral college and refuse to replace it with a national popular vote. In the meantime, I think we have to wrestle with the fact that winning may require us to nominate candidates that will appeal to voters who are considerably less liberal than many of us are and then show up to support them.

Update: For more on the topic of selecting a Democratic presidential candidate in 2020, see: