You Sure Know How to Pick a Winner
11-19-2007
Every election cycle, political observers and the media spend months examining the minutia of candidate issue positions, quarterly fundraising reports, and campaign staff composition. Yet, at some point late in the game, it inevitably occurs to those covering the presidential race that what really matters to voters is candidate electability.
 
The media seem to rediscover this basic fact every four years, but I actually learned it many years ago, while reading Sam Popkin’s classic 1991 work, The Reasoning Voter. If you can find a copy of this book, I encourage you to read Chapter Six, “Expectations and Reassessments: Surges and Declines in Presidential Primaries.” Popkin goes on at length about how voters like to pick a winner, and thus are constantly recalculating candidate electability (or viability), in light of new information about the Democratic and Republican races.
 
John Kerry’s Iowa/New Hampshire surge past Howard Dean in 2004, provides a perfect recent example of this phenomenon. Voters, particularly the many who are not activists, engage in this kind of candidate reassessment right up until they vote, which makes early prediction of the likely nominee (based on public opinion polls) a very tricky business.
 
The difficulty for campaigns is that the concept of electability is an elusive one to define. For many voters, it involves a gut-level decision about which candidate seems the most presidential, based on a constant updating of factors like competitiveness, character, leadership, ideology, and even physical appearance.  The relative importance of each factor varies from one voter to the next, but the end result is a personal calculation about whether a particular candidate can win.
 
So, as we approach the first nomination contests, and I hear talk of the importance of candidate electability this time around, I am reminded of the great Talking Heads song, Once in a Lifetime, with its famous refrain, same as it ever was.


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