I like democracy and engagement, so seeing people fight for what they believe in is heartening. But there’s another part of election season where people get sucked into beltway bubble discussions about political Inside Baseball and punditry that is less about issues and more about power, perhaps best exemplified by a one-word topic for a wide variety of campaign conversations:
All too often, Democratic Party discussions that started out focusing on healthcare, racial justice, criminal justice reform, immigration, infrastructure or really any issue begin to morph. Instead of “Does this candidate support single payer healthcare?” we instead hear informed voters say, “I really like ____ but they can’t win” or “The REAL question is, ‘Who can beat ____?”
There’s a lot wrong with voting based on viability. First and foremost, the motivation behind it smacks of technocracy, not democracy. It is, at its best, a compromise to take loose control of a seat. And we could discuss the need to be wary of sacrificing too much virtue for political power and vice versa in its own article.
But the larger problem with the viability argument is its tendency to speak with,
Danica Roem was facing an incumbent who won his previous election by 13 points in a red part of Virginia. She is the first trans woman elected to the Statehouse in Virginia.
Was she viable before she won?
Was Elizabeth Santos “viable”? HISD District 1 had never had a trustee from the east end of the district before. She was up against a huge charter school money machine and an army of support from wealthy suburban families, not to mention two candidates with the endorsement of powerful Texas political figures. Plenty of people treated her as though she wasn’t “viable”.
Could 45 win? He was considered a joke of a candidate almost universally upon announcing, a claim that still held water with most pundits right up until the moment when he won the presidency.
Could Fred Tuttle win? The Vermont dairy farmer spent less than $250 yet drubbed a hedge fund manager by ten points in the 1998 Vermont primary. The highlight was a hilarious debate victory in which Tuttle questioned his opponent on factoids you can only know by living in Vermont farmland.
The answer: Yes. All of them were “viable”. These candidates DID win. There’s no need to question it now.
But we didn’t know that for sure until AFTER the election.
There’s a saying in politics:
In the end, there’s only one poll that matters, and that’s Election Day.
Now, does that mean it doesn’t make sense to look at polls? Not entirely. If you really have a vested interest in a campaign, and you have a strong statistical analyst on-hand who can crunch data about who is ahead or not, that may help you establish your own best path. Candidates need to measure progress.
But that’s not how “viability” usually works, is it? Viability tends to be an argument made off the cuff by armchair political strategists who simply want to ask the peanut gallery “who can win” as an exercise in Inside the Beltway argument that gravitates toward business-as-usual politics but fails to bring the Inside the Beltway tools. In most conversations surrounding “Viability”, individual supporters of a given candidate will project their own preference onto a given option, then assign their projection the value of the highest number of voters in the district in an effort to make their candidacy a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I call shenanigans! If there’s one type of skill humans are terrible at, projecting an outcome for a given psychological preference of a mass population among several relatively new choices, is
Part of the gap comes from the intended use of the polls and their actual use. Polls are meant to be probabilistic barometers, not, scoreboards. But there’s an inherent problem here as well. Nate Silver’s 538 gave Donald Trump a one in four chance of winning the election. One in four isn’t zero in four, and that has been the defense used at-large for polling: “We didn’t project Clinton was an absolute certainty. We left a margin.”
Yet therein lies the big problem with declaring public polls all that useful. Certainly, the exercise of making them is fine, and they make fine little private assessment meters to tinker with until we humans get good at predicting things. But why should we invest millions of dollars in them for news stations, particularly when investigative news has been kicked to the curb by many of the major networks? Is there not something disingenuous about assigning such weight to a system to describe possible realities when we know there aren’t four elections to test the theory?
None of this is to say that viability is completely irrelevant. There is a minimum “manufacturing” requirement for viability. If a candidate runs for Congress in the outer suburbs of Akron, Ohio wearing an inflatable raptor suit with a cigar in one hand and a bottle of Jack Daniels in the other, they probably won’t win. If you run a dog for Congress, they probably won’t win (though I have seen some charming and capable dogs before).
So I don’t vote based on viability.
Here’s how I select a candidate.
Can I trust this person to try to do the right thing? Are they kind? Do I respect their decisions? Do they use politeness in a respectful and equitable way or do they confuse “manners” and respect? Does this person have my best interests at heart? Can they steer clear of shady dealings and the corruption that comes with power?
Indicators for honesty are simply testing for whether or not behavior is consistent and assessing how a candidate reacts to bad news, as well as whether or not the candidate lies. It’s hard to gauge but it’s important.
This person is part of a system. Can they leverage it? Can they navigate Washington or Austin or the local municipal district? Will they be able to accomplish things in their new position? Can they find a way to innovate the system for justice and true democracy?
Indicators for this include anything that shows me how a person thinks in negotiations, conflict, peace, and other ongoing competitive scenarios: how the person speaks (both one on one and in a crowd), whether they listen, how organized they are, who is on their team, whether their plans make sense or are feasible, etc.
Is this person close to me on the ideological spectrum? Is their vision for the world worth pursuing? Do they share my values as a voter? Would they generally land where I land?
Indicators are usually based on the position a candidate is willing to take.
What’s important to note here is that we all have different tolerances for these three categories in the first place. That is, a candidate who is better or worse in one may be the opposite in another. You may find someone who comes in where you do on the issues but couldn’t lead a piece of paper to a waste bin, much less a bill through Congress, but seems like a straight shooter. Or you may find an effective, honest person who is closer to the center or fringe on the political spectrum than you are. And often, you will find multiple candidates against one another who vary in all three categories, and will have to decide for yourself what the best combination is.
If a candidate is too far off in any of the three categories, you probably won’t vote for them. As with most things, when it comes, to candidates, Mileage May Vary in each category.
Whether or not the candidate I vote for is “viable” is up to The People. My job as an individual voter is to select who I think will be good in the seat.