Written by Harry Burke

We should not focus too much on the electability question.

2020 has commenced. Candidates are starting to form exploratory committees, recruit staff, and conduct a whole host of other activities indicative of a nascent campaign. Before a single debate has taken place however, pundits have started the age-old question: who is the most electable?

The electability question is a classic example of commentators’ attempts to nail down a specific measure. Pundits want to tell their readers and listeners what they should pay attention to, and what problems candidates will face. The problem is they write with certainty when they should write with caution.

Warren’s Electability

Take recent questions surrounding Elizabeth Warren’s prospects. Pieces have trickled out that her candidacy has an electability issue. Harry Enten’s piece at CNN.com is a good example of this. He makes the case that Warren is unelectable because she did less well in her 2018 reelection campaign compared to other House races in Massachusetts as a whole. Enten then compares her numbers with other 2020 hopefuls, who are also senators, using the same formula. When those numbers are stacked up against each other, Warren does not fare as well as someone like Amy Klobuchar. Therefore, according to Enten, Warren has an electability problem.

He makes some good points and tries to use a creative mathematical framework to examine this question of electability among potential 2020 candidates. However, it does not seem like an exact science to me.

How a Senate candidate does compared to the rest of the House races in that same state does not convince me that this time next year someone will seem unelectable in a completely different state like Iowa or New Hampshire. Some states may be more receptive to the economic populist message that Elizabeth Warren presents, giving her a leg up on other candidates.

Things Can Change

The bottom line is things can change in a year. Other factors should also be considered in any analysis:

Warren held events in Iowa last week. She drew crowds that overflowed venues and presented a message the resonated with Iowans. Warren has also snatched up top political talent in The Hawkeye State to the great envy of her potential opponents. She has just begun presenting herself, her message, and her platform. It is too early to decide if she has an elecatbility problem plaguing her.

To be fair Enten makes mention to the fact that it is still early in the process in another article. In that piece he creates another model to compare Warren’s overall reelection performance to the 34 other Senatorial campaigns throughout the country. A quick glance suggests it is strong (with an R-squared score of .8947). But my point is not that his statistics are off or that he’s wrong, because he could very well be correct. My point is he writes with an air of certainty when there shouldn’t be. We don’t know if Warren has an electability problem because there hasn’t been a contest yet.


There is no better case for this than Donald Trump. His campaign was border-line laughed at for his inability to present himself as electable as pundits defined it, and yet he won. He was behind in the polls during the entire election and still won.

If 2016 proved anything to me it showed that we should be extremely skeptical of pundits who are certain about anything, let alone something subjective like electability. It is still a year and a half until any results come in. It is a true chicken or egg question. Does Elizabeth Warren have an electability problem or does pundits saying she has one make her have one?

Quite frankly I don’t have an answer to this question, and neither do the pundits. This primary season should not be about horse race questions and polls. It should be about a large debate over the future of the Democratic Party, and then people should vote. After the results, we can definitively say whether someone has an electability problem because they will have either won, or lost.