Kerry’s Electability Myth

William Saletan is confused by the Democratic nominating dynamic that’s now in play:

By media consensus, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination is over. Why? Because John Kerry has won 12 of the 14 primaries and caucuses held so far. And why has Kerry won these contests? Not because voters agree with him on the issues. The reason, according to exit polls, is that voters think he’s the candidate most likely to beat President Bush. There’s just one problem: The same polls suggest this may not be true.

Two weeks ago, Kerry beat Howard Dean by 12 percentage points in the New Hampshire primary, convincing Democrats around the country that Kerry was their most electable candidate. How did Kerry win? By racking up a 4-to-1 advantage over Dean among voters who chose their candidate because “he can defeat George W. Bush in November.” Among voters who chose their candidate because “he agrees with you on the major issues,” Dean and Kerry were tied.

Let me say that again: Among voters who picked the candidate they wanted based on the issues, not the candidate they thought somebody else wanted, Kerry did not win the New Hampshire primary.


All of which raises the $200 million question: Are these “can defeat Bush” voters correct? Is Kerry the most electable Democrat?

It’s a hard question to answer, because most of the evidence is circular. If people support Kerry because they think he’s electable, he goes up in the polls, which makes him look more electable. The best way to filter out this distortion is to focus on the voters least likely to make their decisions in November based on electability. These happen to be the same voters who hold the balance of power in most elections: independents, conservative Democrats, and moderate Republicans. They aren’t principally trying to figure out which Democratic candidate can beat Bush, because they don’t necessarily want the Democratic nominee to beat Bush. They’re trying to decide which Democratic candidate, if any, would be a better president than Bush.

How well has Kerry done among these voters? In absolute terms, well enough. But in relative terms, the numbers show a disconcerting pattern. By and large, the closer you move to the center and center-right of the electorate, where the presidential race will probably be decided, the worse Kerry does. The opposite is true of Edwards.


Could I be wrong about all this? Sure. We pundits have been wrong before. Punditry is a dangerous game. But according to the exit polls, that’s exactly the game Democratic voters have played in nominating Kerry. And if they’re as shaky at it as we are, the price isn’t just embarrassment. It’s defeat.

There’s clearly something to this. Indeed, I had a reader e-mail me a very similar analysis this morning. It’s rather clear that Kerry doesn’t generate the enthusiasm as Howard Dean did before his implosion.

But here’s the thing: Kerry is virtually assured of the nomination now after his impressive wins in the South last next ended whatever rationale there might have been for nominating Edwards. And once that sinks in and he gains the stature of the Presumptive Nominee of the Party, those who want to oust President Bush from office will rally around him. He’s not a particularly exciting guy but, then, neither is Bush. Kerry is, though, a plausible presidential alternative. That means that, as is almost always the case when there’s an incumbent president up for re-election, this will ultimately be a referendum on the incumbent.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Paul says:

    I *almost* made this point yesterday.

    The Dems messed up with Kerry. They got an uninspiring candidate with PLENTY of baggage. (see drudge today)

    Admittedly they had little choice, of the top 4 candidates, 1 was too young and 2 were crazy.

    Ironically Lieberman was the most electable and he got run off because the crazy wing of the party had too much power early.

  2. Brian says:

    I totally disagree with Saletan … there is nothing at all disconcerting about the pattern, “By and large, the closer you move to the center and center-right of the electorate, where the presidential race will probably be decided, the worse Kerry does.”