The Epistemology of Electability

Isaac Chotiner points to some noteworthy data:

A late-October Quinnipiac University survey underscored this point. Nationally, it showed Clinton being edged out by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, 45% to 43%, within the margin of error. In red states, however, she ran behind him, 49% to 40%, and she trailed, 47% to 41%, in the purple ones. By comparison, Illinois Senator Barack Obama beat Giuliani by a single percentage point (43% to 42%) nationally but held that same margin in the purple states and came within 6 points (45% to 39%) in the red ones.

Isaac's afraid. I don't know what to think. If you think of "electability" as a pure dispositional property, then I think it's pretty clear Obama has more of it. It shows up in the early polls, in the pretty clear-cut fact that he's a more compelling public speaker, and in the anecdotal sense that he has an easier time of making people who disagree with him on important issues nonetheless decide they like and respect him (see, e.g., Andrew's Obama story for The Atlantic). This is an interesting and important fact about the election.

Still, one suspects that progressives primarily care about who's most likely to win the election and Obama's promising raw material is only part of the story. Some Democrats I speak to are very convinced that Hillary Clinton will be better both at taking punches from the right and at punching back. Certainly, most everyone (myself included) is impressed with the quality of the campaign she's run thus far. And this stuff counts. Nobody's so charismatic that opposition attacks will just bounce right off them. Now in DC people talk this stuff to death, and my basic take is that plausible arguments can be made both ways and the answer is just unknowable. An unsatisfying conclusion, perhaps, but good enough for a blog post.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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