Beating President Trump in November 2020 is really important to Democrats. Sizable shares of Democrats tell pollsters that a candidate’s “electability” will be a very important factor in their primary vote — even more than the candidate’s policy positions. The problem is that we don’t know for sure what makes a candidate electable.
But we can get an idea of what Democratic voters think an electable candidate looks like by finding polls that ask voters which 2020 presidential hopeful they think has the best chance of winning the general election, in addition to asking who they would support independent of electability concerns. At least two recent polls have asked both questions: a Quinnipiac poll of registered Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters in California and a Granite State Poll of likely New Hampshire primary voters (conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center).1 Perhaps unsurprisingly, in both cases, the percentage of voters who say each candidate is the most electable is very similar to the percentage of voters who support each candidate. But there are some telling divergences: Some candidates widely seen as electable don’t have as much support from voters, while others who have generated a lot of voter enthusiasm aren’t seen as particularly strong general-election candidates.
The table below looks at the difference in each poll between the share of voters who support each candidate and the share who think he or she is the strongest general-election candidate, then averages those differences. It turns out Democrats believe former Vice President Joe Biden is the most electable Democrat — even though fewer voters pick him as their first choice in the primary.
Even non-Biden voters think Biden could win the general
Average difference between share of Democrats who said each candidate was their first choice in a primary and the share who said the candidate had the best chance of winning the general election in two recent state polls
|Quinnipiac (CA)||Granite State Poll (NH)|
|Candidate||First Choice||Best Chance||First Choice||Best Chance||Average Diff.|
As for Sen. Bernie Sanders, who ranks second to Biden in most polls of the Democratic primary thus far, his perceived electability was on par with his popularity as a candidate. Apparently, Democratic voters don’t agree that Sanders’s socialism makes him unelectable. Meanwhile, only former Rep. Beto O’Rourke joined Biden as a candidate whose perceived electability outstripped his popularity as a candidate, although for O’Rourke, the difference was quite small. Quite a few candidates showed up at the other end of the electability spectrum, including South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. All three enjoyed decent voter support but were less likely to be seen as electable.
You probably noticed a pattern there. The moderate, straight, white men score best, while the women and the man seeking to become the first openly gay president lose points on electability, as do nonwhite candidates like businessman Andrew Yang and Sen. Cory Booker. Harris ranks particularly low considering her level of voter support, which may reflect the fact that she is both a person of color and a woman. And even Sen. Amy Klobuchar is seen as a relatively weak general-election candidate even though her strong past electoral performances make a good case for her being electable.
The theory that perceptions of electability are linked to race and gender is hardly new, but we do have some recent polling that supports it. A March poll by HuffPost/YouGov asked Democrats how they thought a candidate’s gender and race would affect other voters’ decisions. In both cases, about a third of respondents said they expected that being male or being white would make other people more likely to vote for a candidate while a single-digit percentage thought it would make people less likely to vote for a candidate. (About 40 percent thought it would make no difference.) And being female and nonwhite were each seen, less overwhelmingly, as net negatives. Interestingly, though, the HuffPost/YouGov poll also found that respondents viewed being over the age of 70 as a serious electability problem, yet in that same poll, 64 percent of voters thought 76-year-old Biden was capable of winning the general election, and 48 percent thought 77-year-old Sanders could do so. Both candidates also had strong electability numbers in both the Quinnipiac and UNH polls. (This may be partly explained by the fact that Trump is 72, so the likely Republican nominee has the same age problem.)
Let me wrap with a different way of polling electability. Instead of asking about voter preferences in the Democratic primary, Business Insider and SurveyMonkey have been asking voters nationwide which candidates they believe would likely win and lose an election against Trump. Unlike in the Quinnipiac and UNH polls, respondents were allowed to select as many candidates as they felt fit that description. Despite the difference in methodology, Business Insider’s early-April poll also found that Democrats viewed Biden as the most electable candidate. A full 56 percent of likely Democratic primary voters said they thought he would beat Trump, and just 15 percent said they thought he would lose. By this metric, Warren rated as the weakest general-election candidate: Just 21 percent thought she would beat Trump, and 33 percent thought she would lose to him. Consistent with the two state polls, O’Rourke was seen as a fairly formidable general-election candidate, while three women (Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and former Georgia state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams) were expected to lose to Trump.
Another way to measure electability
Share of likely Democratic primary voters who think each candidate would likely win or lose an election against President Trump
|Share of voters who predicted that …|
|Candidate||… would win||… would lose||DIff.|
But the Business Insider/SurveyMonkey poll results differed from Quinnipiac’s and UNH’s finding in a few important ways. In the nationwide poll, Sanders was seen as relatively electable: 41 percent said he would probably win a general election vs. 28 percent who said he would probably lose. And more people thought Buttigieg and Harris would defeat Trump than lose to him. Yes, the differences may be due to the fact that respondents could select more than one candidate, but this result should still give us pause about reading too much into a given candidate’s electability (or lack thereof).
None of these polls is the last word on electability. Remember that we’re looking at only a few surveys, and there are many months left before primary voting even begins. Some candidates may come to be viewed as more electable over time, as they continue to campaign and start to appear in debates. Of course, winning early primary states (think then-Sen. Barack Obama winning the overwhelmingly white Iowa caucus in 2008) could change perceptions in a hurry too.
From ABC News: