February 19, 2020

Which Candidates Can Accomplish What They Say They Want?

hands working in clay

I think it makes sense for primary voters to evaluate each candidate and determine which best matches them in terms of their positions on the issues that matter. This is an important part of what it means to be an informed voter and is probably the most common approach to selecting candidates. I also think that it is understandable that primary voters would be interested in trying to identify the candidate(s) best able to win a general election. After all, positions matter little if the candidate cannot win. When these two decision points align so that the candidate the voter most prefers is the one the voter thinks has the best chance of winning, the decision is simple. It does not always work that way, though. Primary voters sometimes struggle with whether to vote for the candidate they like best or the one they think has the best chance of winning.

In this analysis, it can be helpful to remember that nobody really knows which candidate has the best chance of winning the general election. That's a long way off, many things can change in the meantime, and all we can do is guess about that. Setting aside one's preferred candidate to support a less favored one just because a voter thinks they might have a better chance in the general election is the kind of bet I'd be reluctant to make. If the less desirable candidate won, I'd inevitably wonder whether my top choice might have won if they had been given the chance.

Whoever Wins the Nomination Should Have the Best Chance of Winning the General Election

If every primary voter voted for their top choice of candidate (i.e., the one that best fit their views on the issues that mattered to them), it would seem that the candidate who won their party's nomination would be the one with the most support among the party's voters. That candidate should have a better chance of winning the general election than any of their competitors because they'd have more support from those who voted in the primary. Isn't that how primary elections are supposed to work? A large field of candidates competes through a grueling process, and the one who emerges victorious is the one who should be most competitive in the general election.

It might not always work out that way. There could be scenarios where the candidate who emerges from the nominating process is not the one with the best chance of winning the general election. The problem is that predicting when this could happen with an acceptable degree of accuracy seems almost impossible. We can all guess, but there is no way to know which guesses are correct until we know the outcome. It might seem obvious with the benefit of hindsight, but then we are talking about something very different from prediction.

Who Could Get Things Done?

Besides the two considerations mentioned above (i.e., which candidate best fits one's views on the issues and which candidate has the best chances of winning the general election), there is another question that might be nearly as important that we rarely hear about:

Which candidate could, if elected president, reasonably be expected to accomplish much of what they say they want to accomplish?
If Bernie Sanders is your choice of candidate, for example, that probably means you want to see most of his policies become a reality. Imagine that he wins the Democratic nomination and goes on to defeat Trump in the general election. Now that Sanders is our president, what are the odds that he will be able to enact most of his policies? He'd need Democratic majorities in the House and Senate to have any chance of accomplishing much of anything. If he had them, he might be able to pass some of his smaller, cheaper, and less controversial policies. But Sanders (and Warren) don't even have widespread support for many of their policies among Democrats. It wouldn't be enough to have a Democratic House and Senate; they'd need progressive Democrats to control both houses of Congress. How likely is that?

I like many of the more progressive policies embraced by Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg (and others); however, I don't expect any of them to have much of a chance of passing some of their most appealing policies. I like some of the more moderate policies of Amy Klobuchar (and others), and I'd guess that some might be far easier to get through Congress. I might be wise to ask myself the following question:

Would you rather have a revolutionary policy you love fail miserably or an incremental improvement you like but don't think goes nearly far enough pass?
I'm not suggesting we all vote for more moderate candidates for this reason, but I do think that the match between what we want and what a candidate promises probably should be balanced with what the candidate could reasonably accomplish if elected. Some of the "but are they progressive enough" type of litmus tests fall apart quickly if the policies in question have no realistic chance of passing.