Voters Take Issue with Electability
A particular result from the new Associated Press/Pew Research Center poll caught my attention yesterday. When asked whether it is more important to choose a candidate based on issue positions or electability, 74% of New Hampshire Democrats (72% of Iowa Democrats) chose issue positions over electability. These findings suggest that voters select a candidate based on compatibility with their own issue preferences, rather than as the result of a strategic calculation about which candidate is most likely to defeat the other party’s nominee in November.
Given my earlier argument for why candidate electability is central to the nomination process, it should be no surprise that this result struck me as rather peculiar. When I look at the current Democratic field, I see seven candidates (excluding Mike Gravel) who basically occupy the same issue space. All of the candidates are pro-choice, want to bring our troops home from Iraq, hope to provide more affordable healthcare, are very concerned about climate change, and seek to protect the future viability of Social Security and Medicare. In comparison to the issue positions of any future Republican nominee, differences between the Democratic candidates are largely trivial, which should drive Democratic voters to focus on electability.
Occasionally, a legitimate candidate will look like an issue outlier among his party’s potential nominees. Dennis Kucinich (especially in 2004) and Ron Paul offer two good examples of this. But, I would be very surprised if voters could identify any meaningful differences between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or John Edwards on the issues of Iraq, healthcare, or climate change, especially in comparison to the positions of their Republican counterparts on those same issues.
My sense is that Democratic voters (just like Republicans) do see stark differences between the parties on most issues, and are in reality making strategic calculations about candidate electability, even if they are not willing to admit it to a pollster. It is a central tenet of our retail politics tradition (and Iowa’s) that voters grill candidates on the issues, and these poll results likely speak to a veneration of that role by our citizens.
But I would wager that when many New Hampshire Democrats step into the voting booth on January 8th, they will ultimately go with their gut-level feeling on electability (as will Republicans), even if the selected candidate’s issue compatibility with their own preferences is not ideal. Come on New Hampshire Democrats, you know you want to win.

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