Defining Electability: Biden, Bernie, and the Democrat’s Fractured Party Problem

Defining electability is something pollsters attempt to predict and the mainstream media attempts to shape, but in the end, electability is defined by one variable: results. President Trump was labeled unelectable. His supporters were written off as deplorables. He was undermined, underestimated, mocked and maligned by the mainstream media. He trailed and floundered in polls throughout much of the 2016 election cycle. Trump proved all the critics wrong when he became the 45th president of the United States. He wasn’t electable on paper, in polls, to CNN or MSNBC, to the New York Times, but he was, in the end, elected by the American people.

Will Democrats be able to replicate a Trumpian-style redefinition of what it means to be electable with a socialist like Bernie? Or does Biden’s apparent front-runner status prove Democrats have ditched that plan? This week’s Super Tuesday results are being hailed as a victory for Biden, who has struggled to gain traction against Sanders. After Bernie’s victory in the first three races, Biden snatched 10 of the 15 primary states this week. But Bernie’s supporters continue to claim he is the best choice to beat Trump, and nominating Biden will be a replay of the Hillary-Clinton problem. Yes, polls can be wrong, and a candidate maligned by the mainstream as unelectable can redefine electability.

Unfortunately for Democrats their electability problem is one of fractured allegiances. Bernie drives moderate Democrats and Independents toward Trump in head-to-head polling, and Biden struggles with the leftwing of the party and can’t muster even 20% of the youth vote. Super Tuesday results show 49% of voters who identify as very liberal supported Bernie and 60% of 18-29-year-old Democrats supported Bernie to Biden’s 17%. Bernie also won 41% of voters age 30-44, while Biden won just 23%.

Vox also recently warned Democrats nominating Bernie for president could backfire. While Bernie appears electable in polls due in large part to wild popularity among young leftists, the authors argue it’s unlikely this will translate into votes.

According to Vox’s numbers, 11% of young leftists – Bernie’s die-hard supporters – say if he isn’t nominated, they will vote third party, or not vote at all. It’s a warning to the establishment that their votes aren’t tied to the Democratic Party. But it gets worse for Democrats. A nearly equal share of moderates and swing voters say if Bernie is nominated, they’ll vote for Trump. It’s a catch twenty-two that Democrats can’t seem to escape. Far left candidates gain wild but uncompromising support from the left wing of the party, while driving moderates toward the GOP.

Bernie has made boosting youth turnout a cornerstone of his plan to take on Trump, but Vox warns that this goal may be unrealistic. They estimate one in six left-leaning young voters who would otherwise sit out the election would need to support Bernie to offset the moderates Trump would take from Bernie. That would be record-breaking turnout.

There is no doubt Bernie appeals to the young far-left voter bloc, but those numbers themselves may be over-inflated. A recent YouGov-Victims of Communism poll shows Generation Z and Millennial support for socialism dropped off between 2018 and 2019. This is not the same crowd as 2016. What’s more, Harvard Youth Poll data dating as far back as 2008 shows a steady decline in liberal affiliation among young people. Just 27% of today’s 18 to 29-year-olds now consider themselves liberal — a 41% decline in liberal affiliation since 2008.

Market Research Foundation polling also shows a majority of Generation Zers across the political spectrum reject radical and disruptive change. Our research found just 21% of young people want radical change, as shown below.


For Generation Z and Millennials, perceived electability is far less important than the candidate’s policy positions. YouGov found that 49% of young Democrats prioritize a candidate’s stance on issues over perceived electability. This preference is highest in those under 30 but extends up to age 44. Democratic voters 45 and above prefer electability to stances on the issues, as shown below.

Issues v electability
Source: YouGov

Gallup found a similar inclination for young Democrats to prioritize a candidate’s stance on the issues over electability. Fifty-six percent of 18 to 29-year-olds prioritize policies over perceived electability, compared to less than half of all older age groups.

Democrats find themselves in a difficult conundrum this election. Not nominating Bernie guarantees the left and the young will walk, but nominating him guarantees Trump at least as many moderates and swing voters. More importantly, this analysis underscores the divide between policy positions and perceived electability. Young voters are more likely to support candidates regardless of how electable they are perceived to be, calling into question the concept of electability itself. For Democrats, defining electability is essential to beating Trump. However, choosing an ‘electable’ moderate is likely to backfire.

This is a special post by Bill Wilson also appearing in the Daily Torch.