On Electability

I would have thought—after the surprises of the 2008 campaign and now this primary campaign—that media folks and academics would have acquired a degree of circumspection, if not humility, about their claims to know who is or is not electable. What these recent campaigns have shown is that the electorate can upend our expectations and that the opinions of voters are not static. Those opinions can change in response to the changing dynamics of an electoral campaign—you know, what we used to call “politics.” Not only did the voters in 2008 cast their ballot for a black man—something many right-thinking people were sure was not possible in the United States (remember the Bradley Effect?)—but now, to an increasing and unanticipated degree, they are casting their ballots for a self-declared socialist from Brooklyn. And not only is it not the limousine liberal set that’s voting in this unexpected way, as was the case during the 2008 primaries when wealthier Democrats backed Obama and poorer Democrats voted for Clinton. This time around, Clinton’s main base of support seems to be coming from the upper-income brackets of the party, while lower-income voters are flocking to Sanders. So could we perhaps stop making pronouncements about electability, about whom the voters will or will not support, with such confidence? Could we stop assuming we just know who the voters are and how far they will go? If nothing else, we’ll know in a few months if Sanders or Clinton is even minimally electable. So maybe we can allow the voters to deliver that verdict and not presume we know it on their behalf. Hey, that’s a radical thought: let the voters decide!


  1. fosforos17 February 6, 2016 at 11:38 am | #

    Allow the voters to decide? Does anyone imagine that the voters can be allowed to decide anything, when (as I see from Greg Palast) the software designed to “Help America Vote The Way We Have Decided” is already irremovably in place and the only changes contemplated are to destroy what little remains of the recountable paper ballot.

  2. pmftheman February 6, 2016 at 12:01 pm | #

    Letting the voters decide is, indeed, a radical idea.

  3. Bart February 6, 2016 at 12:02 pm | #

    Not only did we elect a black man, we voted for a certain non-citizen born in Kenya, a Muslim, a community organizer, a friend of Bomber Bill Ayers, and a parishioner of that America-hating black Chicago preacher whose name escapes me.

    They will throw similar smears at Bernie, but can they be worse?

    • Samuel February 8, 2016 at 10:48 pm | #

      The Republicans will definitely throw smears at Bernie, if he is the nominee. They will also throw facts – Old, Jewish, Socialist -which, in light of the idiocy of much of the electorate, might be enough to beat him.
      Eight years ago Obama was running against 8 years of Bush, and Sarah Palin was in danger of being a heartbeat from the Presidency.
      Time will tell.

  4. Stephen Zielinski February 6, 2016 at 12:03 pm | #

    Hitler was once believed to be unelectable….

    Sanders, like McGovern, is electable. But will he be a viable president? Or, will he suffer the Allende maneuver?

    • fosforos17 February 6, 2016 at 12:38 pm | #

      Hitler was never elected. His party was losing votes so Von Papen and Hindenberg and Thyssen shoehorned him and Göring into the government so they could burn up the Reichstag, declare a state of emergency, kill and beat the opposition, and of course end elections once and for all. Hitler was never elected. neither was Bush

      • Stephen Zielinski February 7, 2016 at 5:46 am | #

        Hitler led the party with the widest electoral base in the elections of 1932. The conservatives wanted to use Hitler to strengthen their position by augmenting the electoral base of the government. They did not promote Hitler because they liked him and his party.

        In any case, a vote for Hitler’s party was a vote for Hitler.

    • Samuel February 7, 2016 at 1:44 pm | #

      Electability in a Primary election and electability in a General election are, obviously, two very different things.
      McGovern was the Democratic nominee, having beaten the “establishment” candidate.
      He then went on to win ONE state in the General election.
      The Bernie Bubble is inflating quickly, the question is, when will it burst?
      Maybe, on Super Tuesday, or perhaps in the White House, if he gets nominated and wins the election in November.

  5. leedo February 6, 2016 at 12:04 pm | #

    My acquaintances close to the DNC seem to have this habit of speaking about the future with 100% certainty. The funny thing is that what they actually say changes from week to week. “Unelectability” seems to be the latest in a long list of things these folks know to be true.

  6. Joel in Oakland February 6, 2016 at 2:20 pm | #

    Being a narcissist means never having to say you’re sorry. Or were wrong. Or that any of that matters.

  7. nosuchthingasthemarket February 6, 2016 at 2:26 pm | #

    A few days back the (British) Daily Mirror introduced Bernie Sanders to its readers as ‘the American Jeremy Corbyn’. It was only in the last few days before Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party that the right-wingers in the party finally realised that talking about ‘electability’ instead of principles was losing them votes.

    And when they did realise it, it was too late.

    They had no principles left to win votes with.

  8. Dene Karaus February 6, 2016 at 2:28 pm | #

    Naivete alert. The media is shaping these attitudes with the endless references to “truthfulness” going back to the Whitewater smear, and now the email smear. They are guilty of nothing.

    The Clinton’s have so many enemies! If I were they I would call it a day, and retire to escape the lies and falsehoods. In a country where 50% of married people have affairs the references to Bill’s indiscretions in the White House are overblown and inappropriate. Who are we, the voters, the media, to judge. LET THEM BE. Hillary is SO smart and skilled. I love your blog and your politics, but I feel you’ve been party to the “pundit class” that unfairly holds the Clinton’s to some higher standard.

    • fosforos17 February 6, 2016 at 8:07 pm | #

      You think the CIA wasn’t running drugs through Mena? You think Frau Clinton is a master of commodity-futures trading? You think that any decent human being would boast of being a friend of Kissinger? If so, you are a type who can describe paying attention to the Clinton’s lies as “smearing” a type who is beneath smearing.

  9. UserGoogol February 6, 2016 at 3:17 pm | #

    It’s kind of missing the point to say that this is a solely top-down phenomenon. What’s happening is the people, collectively, are trying to figure who the people, collectively, are willing to vote for. If everyone voted for who they thought would do the job best, everyone would vote a write-in candidate and there’d be a million-way tie. Politics is a coordination game, and that means you need to know how everyone else will vote before voting.

  10. Benjamin David Steele February 6, 2016 at 3:30 pm | #

    Here is the main problem. The US doesn’t have a functioning democracy. As a friend of mine wrote:


    “The various chatrooms and forums will be filled with screams of “cuck” met with screams of “problematic” as the various ideological hacks of Western world–for even British newspapers seem to make hey misleading the public about American politics now–as I slowly think that the reactionary Nicolás Gómez Dávila and the ultra-leftist Amadeo Bordiga were both right about one thing: the immaturity of anything with the pretense to call itself democracy.”

    Most Americans don’t even know what democracy means, way beyond an occasional vote. Even among those who have some notion of what democracy is or might be, the support for democracy isn’t as strong as one would hope. It’s not clear that the average American would want democracy, if it were ever offered, not that the present political elite are likely to ever offer it.

    Under these conditions, electability is a charade. If this were a functioning democracy, I doubt a crony corporatist like Clinton would be electable to even the lowest political position. The best that voting for Sanders can do is to force there to be more public debate about democracy itself and so begin to move the country in the right direction.

    We can’t hope to promote democracy, until we admit that we don’t yet have one. Idealism is a good starting place, but we need to find a way to make those ideals compelling and comprehensible to more Americans and then implement them.

  11. Roqeuntin February 6, 2016 at 4:17 pm | #

    To me, the vast majority of people saying Sanders is “unelectable” or that his “policies aren’t realistic” just use that as a front because they don’t want either to happen in the first place. This gives them the luxury of appearing as the serious people. There’s a lot of pompousness to it, and I sometimes think this election is as much about putting such people in their place as anything else. I follow the Sanders for president subreddit pretty closely (/r/sandersforpresident) and the general sentiments there are usually that mainstream media sources can no longer be trusted. I’m also blown away by how enthusiastic they are, how willing everyone is to pitch in and get involved. I don’t know if they’ll win, but it’d be beautiful if they did.

    There are a lot of memes floating around where Bernie is saying things about punk rock that only insiders would know, or music in general. While these are obviously jokes, many a truth is said in jest. In some ways, those jokes are the truth of the election. Hillary is like the lame corporate band you’re forced to hear on Clear Channel stations, and Bernie is like the indie band all the cool kids like and are fiercely devoted to.

  12. Heliopause February 6, 2016 at 4:52 pm | #

    Oh, the voters will decide. They’ll decide to vote for Clinton based on the argument that she is more electable. The reason they will decide she is more electable is that they will have been told repeatedly that she is more electable and Sanders is less electable. Therefore, Clinton is more electable and Sanders is less electable. And how do I know that? Because I have been told repeatedly that Clinton is more electable and Sanders is less electable.

    • Benjamin David Steele February 6, 2016 at 5:48 pm | #

      Chomsky talks about the propaganda model of media. Maybe we could call this the propaganda model of elections. Political reality is simply what is repeated enough in the mainstream. And it is repeated because anything contrary is shut out from being heard.

      • fosforos17 February 6, 2016 at 8:18 pm | #

        Chomsky is (in the root sense of the word) an idiot. Sanders has mastered the “propaganda model of media.” Why do you think he constantly repeats the most powerful word in the adVertisers’ lexicon–“REVOLUTION?”

        • Benjamin David Steele February 6, 2016 at 8:27 pm | #

          @ fosforos17 – A not very intelligent response, I must say. One could even call it idiotic. Maybe you’re projecting, yes?

          You obviously don’t know what is the “propaganda model of media.” It is about how the mainstream media operates and those who act as gatekeepers. Sanders doesn’t work in media and so isn’t a media gatekeeper.

          There is a reason the word ‘socialism’ hasn’t been spoken of much in the MSM. And when it is, it rarely is in a positive light.

          There is also a reason one will find libertarian pundits and hosts on the MSM, sometimes even with their own shows. And a reason why the libertarian Koch brothers have so much influence.

          Similarly, there is a reason why newspapers no longer have labor sections, even though they still have business sections.

          • fosforos17 February 6, 2016 at 8:37 pm | #

            You think the Koches and similar protofascist types are libertarian? Don’t you know that in “State and Revolution” Lenin brilliantly demonstrated that libertarians and revolutiopnary socialists agree on everything except the need for a proletarian state to enforce the revolutionary transition to a libertarian society?

          • Benjamin David Steele February 6, 2016 at 8:45 pm | #

            No, I don’t think the Koch brothers are libertarians. Chomsky is a thousand times more a libertarian than are they. I’m sure Lenin believed lots of things. And Marx believed the corporatist state would collapse. Many people believe many things. So? Anyway, Chomsky is an anarchosyndicalist.

  13. Sancho February 7, 2016 at 1:23 am | #

    In event of a Clinton presidency, I wonder if the burst of actual leftism will remain as a driving force in the electorate, or fade like Occupy.

  14. Nicholas Martin February 7, 2016 at 6:41 pm | #

    This is a little cheap, perhaps, but allow me to repost Paul Krugman’s blog post on precisely the issue of Sanders’ electability here. It eloquently expresses the deep unease I feel when reading Corey’s posts on this topic, and while I greatly respect Corey’s writing and research in general, on this particular issue I feel he really isn’t addressing the key issues squarely and honestly enough.

    “If you are still on the fence in the Democratic primary, or still persuadable, you should know that Vox interviewed a number of political scientists about the electability of Bernie Sanders, and got responses ranging from warnings about a steep uphill climb to predictions of a McGovern-Nixon style blowout defeat. And all of them dismiss current polls as meaningless.

    You are, of course, free to disagree. But you need to carefully explain why you disagree — what evidence do you have suggesting that these scholars’ conclusions, which are based on history and data, not just gut feelings, are wrong?

    And there are two really unacceptable answers that I’m sure will pop up again and again in comments. One is to dismiss all such analyses as the product of corruption — they’re all bought and paid for by Wall Street, or looking for a job in a Clinton administration. No, they aren’t. The other is to say that you’re willing to take the chance, because Clinton would be just as bad as a Republican. That’s what Naderites said about Al Gore; how’d that work out?

    I have some views of my own, of course, but I’m not a political scientist, man — I just read political scientists and take their work very seriously. What I do bring to this kind of discussion, I hope, is an awareness of two kinds of sin that can corrupt political discussion.

    The obvious sin involves actually selling one’s views. And that does happen, of course.

    But what happens even more, in my experience, is an intellectual sin whose effects can be just as bad: self-indulgence. By this I mean believing things, and advocating for policies, because you like the story rather than because you have any good evidence that it’s true. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years going after this sort of thing on the right, where things like the claim that Barney Frank somehow caused the financial crisis so often prevail in the teeth of overwhelming evidence. But it can happen on the left, too — which is why, for example, I’m still very cautious about claims that inequality is bad for growth.

    On electability, by all means consider the evidence and reach your own conclusions. But do consider the evidence — don’t decide what you want to believe and then make up justifications. The stakes are too high for that, and history will not forgive you.”


    • Stephen Zielinski February 8, 2016 at 8:06 am | #

      Trump would inflict a McGovern-like defeat on Sanders? Would Cruz?

      We should recall here that, in 2008, Americans did not elect the Obama they got. They elected a leftish Obama?

      On the other hand, I expect the reactionary elements among the oligarchs and elite would prefer a fascist to Sanders. But would they follow through on their preferences? Would the electorate?

      Or, would our reactionaries rather have a coup originating in the Pentagon?

      I suspect they’d support a military coup, that is, a Bonapartist solution to the class conflict the Sanders’ campaign has brought to the forefront.

    • Roquentin February 8, 2016 at 11:05 am | #

      Remember when they made that same case for John Kerry against Howard Dean and then Kerry went ahead and lost anyways, to a incredibly unpopular Dubya? Nominating a middle of the road candidate no one is excited about is not a guarantee that you’ll win. Hillary is about as hated by Republicans as a candidate can be. I’m not saying this is fair or that misogyny doesn’t have a lot to do with it, but if we’re strictly talking about electability there’s no reason to leave that out.

      I can’t really see how nominating a candidate the Democratic base isn’t excited about and the Republicans have hated for years is a recipe for success in the general election, despite what those at Vox or people like Krugman want you to believe.

      • fosforos17 February 8, 2016 at 11:49 am | #

        Two days ago I might well have agreed with you about the unelectability of Frau Clinton. Today I’m a lot less sure about that. The weekend comments from Sarandon, Albright, the Bg Dog himself and his Biggest Bitch, make it look like the current Clinton nomination campaign is imploding. It now looks like Sanders will beat the Clinton as decisively–remember–as Ned Lamont beat the contemptible and despised Lieberman in that Connecticut Senate primary. And what then? A headline in todays FINANCIAL TIMES tells us what to expect: “Republican Execs eye Clinton vote.” So this is what to expect: Sanders and Trump (or Cruz, makes no difference) are nominated; that cabal of billionaires, led by Mr. Bloomberg, dumps whatever type gets the Repugnicon nomination; and then they make the Clinton into the candidate of a BiPartisan “No Labels” ticket, maybe with Jeb Bush as Veep. Still unelectable? No more so than Lieberman then!

  15. Carl Weetabix February 8, 2016 at 11:12 am | #

    It’s funny how some Democrats latch on to Bernie’s reasons for non-electability, some of which I admit do raise some concern, but ignore just how zealously hated Clinton is among much of the population, both for her association with her husband’s administration, but also her own persona, and yes, sadly, sexism.

    It is true much of what ails Hillary isn’t fair, but to pretend it’s not there is as blind as pretending Bernie doesn’t have issues as well.

    Let’s face it – I know many Republicans who would be no fan of Bernie of over policies and the so-called “socialism” issue, but they hate, I mean *hate* Hillary, and will be massively mobilized should she become the Democratic nominee. Even including the center to the very left, there is a huge set of yes, sadly mostly males, but some females too, that really just do not like Hillary, to the point that they are at least claiming that they won’t vote for her against a Republican (I hope they are deluding themselves but…).

    And then there are the long line of mostly faux scandals that while supposedly “resolved” we know will dominate the headlines once again should she be nominated.

    Does that mean she is less electable? No, but I think it speaks to anyone saying one is more or less electable based on anything but hard numbers is just pulling selectively out of their arses.

    • fosforos17 February 8, 2016 at 1:48 pm | #

      Claiming that the scandals are “mostly false” is admitting that SOME of them are not false. Can the Clinton survive exposure of those real scandals (and she has many real as false scandals to deal with)? Well, as the Media-Backed BiPartisan alternative to the Commie Sanders and the Fascist Cruz (or Trump) she wouldn’t have to.

  16. fosforos17 February 8, 2016 at 1:50 pm | #

    (corrected)Claiming that the scandals are “mostly false” is admitting that SOME of them are not false. Can the Clinton survive exposure of those real scandals (and she has as many real as false scandals to deal with)? Well, as the Media-Backed BiPartisan alternative to the Commie Sanders and the Fascist Cruz (or Trump) she wouldn’t have to.

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