< The Electability Contest

Transcript

Friday, November 30, 2007

BOB GARFIELD:
Voters have always had to ponder the issue of electability. Do I vote for my favorite candidate among those who have a chance to win, or do I risk squandering my ballot on a vote of principle?

In this year's primary race, that calculation has come to be a central question, if not the central question. Jason Zengerle wrote about the issue of electability in New York Magazine. He says it plays an unprecedented role in the way we think of the candidates.
JASON ZENGERLE:
You know, I was talking to one campaign aide for one of the Democratic campaigns for this story, and he said that in their internal polls of Iowa caucus-goers, electability is now the number one issue of the caucus-goers they talk to. It's more important to them than Iraq.

So if you're a reporter, then you can simply say, well, if the voters are considering electability as one of their main criteria, that's how I'm going to assess the candidates as well, and it allows the media to sort of play the horserace politics game with a little bit less of a guilty conscience.
BOB GARFIELD:
If you read newspapers, you will encounter electability as an issue that's discussed. If you watch 24-hour cable news, it is inescapable. [LAUGHS] Why is it such an attractive concept for CNN and Fox and so forth?
JASON ZENGERLE:
Because it's an unanswerable question, at least for the next year, and, you know, if you have 24 hours of programming to fill, you can keep on going around and around and around on that same topic.

The most interesting thing about the fact that electability gets talked about so much on cable news is if you go to Iowa or you go to New Hampshire and, you know, you go to a political event and you watch candidates speak, and then you go up to, you know, voter or a caucus-goer afterwards and you ask them what they think about the candidate, very rarely, it seems, will they mention the war or health care or anything like that. They'll immediately start talking [LAUGHS] about whether that candidate's electable or not, and you might as well be talking to like, Chris Matthews or Tim Russert or someone like that.

All these voters out there have become sort of mini-pundits themselves, I think, because they spend so much time watching Hardball or watching Keith Olbermann or watching Meet the Press that they just kind of start repeating what those guys say whenever they talk to reporters.
BOB GARFIELD:
I'm curious whether this whole notion of electability is new or whether it informed the choices in nominating, you know, I don't know, Adlai Stevenson or George McGovern or Walter Mondale or any number of [LAUGHS] no-chance Democratic nominees.
JASON ZENGERLE:
The term itself actually dates back to 1879, but it didn't really become a big part of the political lexicon, I think, until the latter years of the 20th century, when you started seeing it being used more and more by typically underdog candidates - people like Hart in '84. Dole tried to use it against Bush in '88.

Bob Kerrey tried to use it against Clinton in '92. I mean, Kerrey famously said that the Republicans would open Clinton up like a soft peanut in the general election. And in all of those instances, with the exception of Mondale and Hart, it's typically been an argument of loser candidates, to be honest. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD:
It's particularly interesting this go-around because the frontrunners of both parties, Hillary Clinton and Rudolph Giuliani, have both been deemed by some pundits to be [LAUGHS] unelectable in a national election. It's kind of a like a resistible force against a moveable object. Does it strike you as a bit weird?
JASON ZENGERLE:
Oh, yeah, it's definitely strange. I mean, I think what it ultimately shows is just how squishy a concept electability is. It's completely dependent on context and time, and it can change from one moment to the next.
BOB GARFIELD:
The Constitution gives each adult American citizen a vote but has nothing to say about the calculus that we employ in casting that vote. Do you think that there's even a moral issue attached to whether electability should even be something we as citizens consider?
JASON ZENGERLE:
I don't know if it's a moral issue but maybe a practical issue. I mean, in the past, voters who've voted based on electability haven't always shown that they were that smart at handicapping. I mean, I think 2004 is a really good example.

You know if you're a Democratic primary voter in 2004 and you really like Howard Dean but you decide that you're going to vote for John Kerry because he's more electable, come November 2004 you've got to be feeling pretty stupid about that decision. I mean, it turns out this, you know, strategic rational choice you made was completely wrong.

But I don't think it's a moral issue necessarily to vote for Kerry over Dean on the grounds that you think Kerry's more electable. If that's why you're voting, you'd better hope the calculation you're making is correct, and oftentimes it seems it's not. It's a hard thing to assess.
BOB GARFIELD:
Has electability taken on unprecedented significance in 2007?
JASON ZENGERLE:
Yeah, I think it has. I think this time around you've never had so many candidates making the electability argument in such a forthright manner, whether it's, you know, Edwards or Obama basically saying they're more electable than Clinton.

And then on the Republican side, you have all manner of Republican candidates saying that they are the candidate who can actually beat Clinton in November, whether it's Giuliani or McCain or Romney.

McCain's the best example. Last month, his campaign sent out a press release entitled "Good Polling News," and the McCain campaign claimed that there was a recent Fox News poll of a hypothetical match between the Republican candidates and Hillary Clinton. And it shows that John McCain, according to the campaign, was in the best position to beat Hillary.

The only problem with the poll was it did show that McCain did better than all the Republican candidates against Hillary, but McCain still lost to Hillary in this Fox News poll. His electability claim boiled down to the idea that he would lose by less to Hillary Clinton.
BOB GARFIELD:
[LAUGHS] Well, Jason, thank you very much for joining us.
JASON ZENGERLE:
Thank you very much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD:
Jason Zengerle wrote about electability for New York Magazine.