By media consensus, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination is over. Why? Because John Kerry has won 12 of the 14 primaries and caucuses held so far. And why has Kerry won these contests? Not because voters agree with him on the issues. The reason, according to exit polls, is that voters think he's the candidate most likely to beat President Bush. There's just one problem: The same polls suggest this may not be true.
Two weeks ago, Kerry beat Howard Dean by 12 percentage points in the New Hampshire primary, convincing Democrats around the country that Kerry was their most electable candidate. How did Kerry win? By racking up a 4-to-1 advantage over Dean among voters who chose their candidate because "he can defeat George W. Bush in November." Among voters who chose their candidate because "he agrees with you on the major issues," Dean and Kerry were tied.
Let me say that again: Among voters who picked the candidate they wanted based on the issues, not the candidate they thought somebody else wanted, Kerry did not win the New Hampshire primary.
OK, maybe Dean wasn't the most electable guy. But in the states that followed, voters applied the same theory to other candidates, padding Kerry's delegate count and aura of inevitability. They figured the guy who had won Iowa and New Hampshire was a winner. So, they voted for him, proving themselves right. The biggest delegate prize on Feb. 3 was Missouri, where Kerry beat John Edwards 2 to 1, filling the airwaves with talk of a juggernaut. How did Kerry thrash Edwards so badly? He won "agrees with you" voters by 10 points—a healthy but not awesome margin, largely attributable to the fact that Kerry was the candidate the media were talking about, since he had just won New Hampshire. No, the people who gave Kerry his enormous vote tally in Missouri—and nearly two-thirds of the state's delegates—were the "can defeat Bush" voters, who went for Kerry over Edwards by a ratio of more than 3 to 1.
Everywhere you look, Kerry collected big wins and delegates for this reason. In Arizona, he squeaked past Wes Clark by just two percentage points among "agrees with you" voters. But he crushed Clark among "can defeat Bush" voters, netting a 16-point victory. In Delaware, Kerry did twice as well among "can defeat Bush" voters as among "agrees with you" voters. In Oklahoma, both Clark and Edwards beat Kerry by 13 points among "agrees with you" voters, but Kerry got away with a competitive finish by thumping them among "can defeat Bush" voters. In South Carolina, Kerry lost "agrees with you" voters to Edwards by a 2-to-1 margin but escaped with a respectable second thanks to "can defeat Bush" voters.
Last weekend, the press wrote Dean out of the race after Kerry beat him 3 to 1 in the Michigan caucuses. A poll of Michigan absentee voters taken by the CBS News Elections and Survey Unit showed Kerry crushing Dean by 29 points among "can beat Bush" voters. But in the same survey, "agrees with you" voters chose Dean over Kerry by four points. To be fair, the poll showed Dean doing 19 points better, relative to Kerry, in the absentee sample than in the final returns. But the logical explanation for that gap is that many absentee ballots were cast before the race turned upside down. And the logical implication of that explanation is that while the poll understated Kerry's share of "can defeat Bush" voters, it was less likely to understate his share of "agrees with you" voters.
Tuesday, the electability factor wasn't just big; it was decisive. The networks anointed Kerry the nominee based on his sweep of Virginia and Tennessee. But Kerry wasn't the first choice of Tennesseans who selected their candidate based on the issues. Edwards was. The "can defeat Bush" voters were the ones who reversed the outcome and put Kerry on top.
All of which raises the $200 million question: Are these "can defeat Bush" voters correct? Is Kerry the most electable Democrat?
It's a hard question to answer, because most of the evidence is circular. If people support Kerry because they think he's electable, he goes up in the polls, which makes him look more electable. The best way to filter out this distortion is to focus on the voters least likely to make their decisions in November based on electability. These happen to be the same voters who hold the balance of power in most elections: independents, conservative Democrats, and moderate Republicans. They aren't principally trying to figure out which Democratic candidate can beat Bush, because they don't necessarily want the Democratic nominee to beat Bush. They're trying to decide which Democratic candidate, if any, would be a better president than Bush.
How well has Kerry done among these voters? In absolute terms, well enough. But in relative terms, the numbers show a disconcerting pattern. By and large, the closer you move to the center and center-right of the electorate, where the presidential race will probably be decided, the worse Kerry does. The opposite is true of Edwards.