Understanding our Elections

On the stage of the most recent democratic debate, the country watched as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders battled over electability, the likelihood of a candidate to win the general presidential election. Warren attacked Sanders in which she claimed that in a private discussion, he had told her that a woman could not win the presidency. Sanders denied it, and audio of their post-debate conversation surfaced, revealing that both called each other liars. Perhaps conflict between the two was inevitable—after all, they are both heavily left-leaning candidates who will undoubtedly fight for the same voters. Many have speculated that Warren, as a female candidate, is less likely to get elected than Sanders. On the democratic stage that night, Warren saw her opportunity to refute that theory. Yet why was it more important to debate electability than to debate policy?

Thus far, the democratic primaries have centered around one unshakable goal: Beat Donald Trump. At nearly every democratic debate, the candidates have been asked why they are the best candidate to achieve that goal. After all, that’s the question at the forefront of the minds of democratic voters: Who is the most electable? Before any votes have been cast, this question has deeply influenced the candidates who people donate to and, by extension, the candidates who qualify for the democratic debates. A large portion of voters state that their most important objective for the democratic nomination isn’t implementing specific policy, but instead beating Trump. This means voting for candidates who perform the best in head-to-head polls against the sitting president. However, the truth is that despite the hype over the question of electability, it is neither a reliable indicator nor a relevant facet of a successful campaign.

One of the questions most commonly asked has been, “Can a woman beat Trump?” Many remember Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016 and wonder if a female candidate would experience a similar failure in the 2020 election. Clinton’s defeat aside, is it possible for a woman to beat Donald Trump? Elizabeth Warren responded to that question at the most recent democratic debate and said, “the only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are women: Amy [Klobuchar] and me.” It’s not just Warren and Klobuchar who are winning. In 2018, women experienced sweeping victories in the House of Representatives—of the 41 seats that Democrats flipped from red to blue, 23 were won by women. In most cases, despite battling more difficulties than men, women win at roughly the same rate that their male counterparts do. According to a City University of New York Institute for State and Local Government report, in the 2016 mayoral elections, women and men were about equally as likely to win when they ran—16.2 percent of female candidates won, compared with 17.6 percent of male candidates. The excitement surrounding female candidates (especially those who are the first female candidate for a position) often brings out more volunteers and support. With all of that in mind, perhaps the public should focus not on “electability,” but on policy.

In reality, the importance of electability is inflated by its discussion more than its relevance to an actual election. By constantly questioning a woman’s ability to win, we plant doubt in the minds of already wary voters, reinforcing the idea that women can’t be elected. “Electability” can be incredibly difficult to predict—polls can differ from the final votes on election day as demonstrated all too clearly in the 2016 election. Candidates considered “not electable,” based on gender or race, have won the office before. Barack Obama became the first black president in the 2008 election, breaking those commonly held assumptions of “electability.” In fact, in a recent investigation by Five Thirty-Eight, a website devoted to hard statistical analysis, it was found that head-to-head electability polls are just as accurate as random chance. However, the greatest case against electability sits in the oval office right now—the sitting president once presumed to be out of the running in head-to-head polls. Rather than immediately acting on the assumption that a minority candidate is immediately disadvantaged, why not hear out his or her policies first? The conversation only comes full circle: By questioning whether women can be elected, we practically ensure that they won’t be.

If we continue to over-focus on electability, we’ll never move forward. The United States government desperately lacks diversity, and although representation has gotten better over recent years, there’s still plenty of work to be done. Change will only begin when rather than questioning women, we encourage them. Furthermore, the United States needs a leader whose policies will win the hearts of the people, not a leader who is halfheartedly elected.