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Polls Find Voters Weighing Issues vs. Electability

- November 21, 2007

When voters in a primary (or caucus) cast their votes, what do they weigh more, the candidates’ stances on issues or their electability? CBS/NY Times conducted a poll asking asking Iowa and New Hampshire voters that question. They find differences in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Two-thirds of New Hampshire Republicans and one-half of Iowa Republicans said they were open to voting for candidates who did not share their view on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage…By contrast, 50 percent of New Hampshire Democrats said they would not be prepared to vote for a candidate who wanted to keep troops in Iraq “longer than you would like,” even if they thought the Democrat had a good chance of victory in November (the article didn’t give a comparable number for Iowa Democrats).

That got me thinking, what have political scientists found? Alan Abramowitz examined this exact question in 1989 in his article, Viability, Electability, and Candidate Choice in Primary Presidential Elections: A Test of Competing Models (restricted access). Alan controls for three predictors in his model: (1) Candidate Evaluation – overall evaluation of the candidate; (2) Viability – chances of receiving the party’s nomination; and (3) Electability – chances of winning the general election. He finds that voters weigh electability more than the other predictors.

However, with Alan’s limited dataset he was unable to uncover the variation within and across states. I suspect that in early primaries (and caucuses) candidate evaluations may play a larger roll, but in later primaries (and caucuses) electability maybe more important. Why? In the early stages of the primary season, there is a lot of uncertainty regarding who is electable — recall Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — so voters rely on candidate evaluations.