The Paradox of Electability

Political journalists, being journalists, tend to focus on campaign happenings and controversies as a key determinant of election outcomes. Research, however, indicates that most people vote as dogmatic partisans and that most of the election-to-election variance can be explained by macroeconomic trends. Some elections, obviously, are very close and thus "the campaign" turns out to have been a decisive figure, but even in these cases a very close election like the 2000 election featured so many "important" campaign factors (Bush's coverup of his DUI citation, Gore sighing in the debate, Bush not knowing the names of foreign leaders, the press insisting that Gore claimed to have invented the internet, etc.) that it's hard to believe that any one of them was actually all that important.

Primary campaign voters, by contrast, are more fickle because there's much less underlying difference between the contenders. And one thing primary voters look at is electability, and another thing they look at is elite support and elites look a lot at electability. Voters and elites alike, meanwhile, like reporters, tend to wildly overestimate the importance of contingent campaign happenstance on election outcomes. Consequently, a primary season campaign gaffe that's seen as potentially harmful during the general election is arguably more likely to hurt you in the primary because of the perception that it'll hurt you in the general than it is to actually hurt you in the general election.