No other candidate in the field can match — let alone eclipse — Hillary Clinton’s abiding unpopularity like Donald Trump can.
Although there is still some intrigue left in the primary contests — especially on the Republican side — the focus is beginning to shift to each party’s prospects in November. The biggest question is whether Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, can win a general election contest against Hillary Clinton.
Before investigating electability, we need to clear up a few things. Although it is sometimes treated as a static political attribute — a property with little or no variation across different electoral contests — electability is actually more of a fluid concept than it first appears. In fact, each presidential cycle should see a reset of what we take electability to be. Not in a wholesale, forget-everything-you-think-you-know sort of way, but in a way that is sensitive to changes in the electorate.
The 2016 contests have thus far demonstrated why it is vital to make adjustments based on the particularities of the current year’s race. There is no sense applying the old assumptions of electability — that is, electability as traditionally construed — to a sui generis candidate such as Trump. Last September, The New York Times’ Nate Cohn argued that “no candidate remotely like [Trump] has ever come close to winning a presidential nomination.” Yet here we all are.
Induction is indeed a powerful mechanism, although we don’t need to be David Hume scholars to recognize that the present is not guaranteed to be like the past. At the start of the race it seemed Jeb Bush was the electable one, but it turned out this was true only if we limit the voting field to Republican mega donors.
If Voters Turn Out Early, They Turn Out Late
One theory for better understanding electability is to consider voter participation numbers, i.e. turnout. The idea is that turnout levels in the primaries can be a strong indicator of turnout levels in the general election. The reasoning here is simple: great enthusiasm during the party nomination process should naturally carry over into November.
When we look at the data, what do they tell us? The 2008 primaries saw Democrats come out in droves, far exceeding their turnout during the previous two primaries but also exceeding this year’s totals thus far. Here is a comparison of the turnout data from four early states during that time period.
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