Bernie Sanders’s victory in New Hampshire’s primary was decisive, but it was not a show of dominance. In 2016 the Vermont senator won 60 percent of the state’s votes versus Hillary Clinton, but this time just a quarter of primary-goers favored him. Just two percentage points behind him was former mayor Pete Buttigieg, followed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar with almost 20 percent of votes. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden both made more modest but noteworthy splashes as well.
It’s true that Sanders faced a far more crowded field this time around, which means the votes were scattered among more candidates, but he underperformed compared to polling estimates, and his margin of victory mirrored his unusually narrow frontrunner standing in national polls considering how far we are in the race.
If Sanders doesn’t pull off more decisive wins, the nominating process could shape up to be a protracted, brutal process. Democratic primaries award delegates to candidates proportionally based on vote share, as long as they meet a certain threshold, typically 15 percent of ballots. With so many still in the running, a tight race could theoretically endure throughout the primary season, and would incentivize candidates and supporters to grow more adversarial toward each other—something we’ve already seen growing signs of.
After Iowa and New Hampshire, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver forecasted that the odds that no candidate wins enough pledged delegates to ensure the nomination—which could trigger a contested convention involving contentious bartering and dealmaking between candidates—is “high and increasing.”
The implications of this are rather ironic in light of what mainstream Democratic voters, party elites, and the liberal press claim to care about. The watchword of the Democratic primary has been “electability,” a nebulous descriptor that has captured the liberal obsession with finding the perfect candidate to oust Donald Trump from the Oval Office. And yet the ferocity of the race to find this ideal electoral opponent could end up lethally wounding the final nominee: there is significant evidence suggesting that a vicious primary hurts a party in a general election. In other words, the Democrats’ biggest electability risk may not lie with their candidates, but the absurd trial that they’re being subjected to.
Polling in early primary states indicates that voters consider identifying someone who can beat Trump to be absolutely crucial to choosing a nominee. This is consistent with media narratives and months of polling showing that Democrats want someone who is “electable.” The problem, however, is that electability is bullshit.
As countless political scientists have pointed out, the subjective appraisal of who may fare well in a general election doesn’t translate to a coherent concept when discussed publicly or measured through polling. Among other things, it stacks discussions of candidates unfairly in favor of white men and it involves entirely unreliable guesswork about other voters’ preferences.
So far the electability metric has not brought clarity to the race. In New Hampshire, “electability” drove voters to moderates like Buttigieg and Klobuchar as well as to anti-establishment firebrand Sanders. Biden’s entire strategy is based on his "electability" over Trump, but his abysmal performances in Iowa and New Hampshire suggests his own party doesn’t particularly care for him.
All the hand-wringing about finding an electable candidate, fueled by intense anxiety about a second term for Trump, has done little to create consensus within the party or to narrow the field to a manageable split between a moderate and an anti-establishment candidate. Instead, it has helped create a primary trajectory that is likely to hurt the nominee’s election prospects.
The massive Democratic pool of candidates has been packed with ideologically overlapping people promising they’re the Promised One to eject Trump, exacerbating splits between voters. Add to the mix some billionaires with savior complexes who are gaming the primary system with unbeatable ad buys, and it dramatically increases the odds of spreading delegates so widely that a contested convention might be necessary. Such a scenario would entail controversial floor fights this summer at the party convention, where pledged delegates would shift between candidates until settling on a nominee. It would be a nightmare scenario for a party that will need unity and momentum before Election Day.
Divisive primaries can hurt parties quite badly in general elections. As the University of Chicago’s Alexander Fouirnaies and Stanford University’s Andy Hall demonstrated in a 2016 study, contentious nomination contests that are salient to the public tend to hurt the party in general elections. They studied US state primaries that went to runoff elections, which are ripe for understanding divisive elections because they involve longer selection processes and indicate the absence of a consensus candidate. They found that on average that close contests in House and Senate races cost parties 6 to 9 percentage points, and shrunk the party’s chances of winning by 21 percentage points.
They didn’t have findings about White House races, but Fouirnaies said on the University of Chicago’s “Not Another Politics” podcast recently: “It actually could potentially hurt the party even more on a presidential level.” There is not a scholarly consensus on the effects of primaries (and it’s worth noting that Fouirnaies and Hall found that state legislative elections experienced less harmful effects) but a number of other studies have also found that tough primaries negatively affect candidates in the general election.
This is the real electability problem emerging: A long, venom-filled race where candidates poison each other with damaging attacks, alienating some of the Democratic electorate and providing ready-made narratives and opposition research for Trump. There’s also a concern that campaigns could burn out donors, staff, and volunteers, or at least limit their potency for the general election after a long primary slog.
Signs of a toxic political environment in the Democratic primary already abound. With the race still so divided after a year of campaigning, party elites and candidates are sharpening attacks during speeches, advertisements, and media appearances. Buttigieg and Biden, for example, have taken pointed swipes at each other as they tried to secure the moderate lane. Hillary Clinton has struck out at Sanders and, remarkably, declined to say if she’d back him if he won the nomination.
And candidate supporter culture has also grown increasingly tribal on the Internet. Some prominent Sanders supporters online, feeling besieged by the party establishment and socialist-phobic cable news pundits, have suggested that they won’t vote for anyone but Sanders in the general election. (Polling indicates that Sanders supporters appear to be disproportionately likely to hold this position.) And sometimes disdain for rivals can get quite dehumanizing — some Sanders supporters, for example, have circulated memes likening Buttigieg to a rat. (This online subculture represents a tiny slice of Sanders’ millions of supporters, but it’s a vocal camp.)
There are very real ideological divides in the Democratic Party, and the primary process is a crucial way to find a nominee who can best represent the party’s many constituencies and harness the spirit of the electorate. But it cannot be forgotten that the electability fixation, the ridiculous length of the process, the obscene amount of money it requires, and the way in which it plays out like a sports tournament has substantial costs. It’s not hard to see how, at this rate, a drawn-out primary, especially one with a contested convention, could cause disenchantment with the eventual nominee and depress turnout. Lest anyone forget, Trump is a turnout machine.