Selecting a candidate for the Democratic ticket nine months before the general election is proving to be a tricky affair for primary voters this year.
Though endlessly examining candidates' strategizing, positioning and polling numbers was once the exclusive domain of political junkies, primary voters are now taking on the roll of election analyst. Issues are taking a back seat to the more high-maintenance task of determining "electability" — can a particular candidate win the general election in November?
In New Hampshire, where 62 percent chose John Kerry, one in three voters said electability was their determining factor. In every state that has followed, exit polls have reinforced the importance of electability in the minds of primary voters. It's no coincidence that Kerry has romped through the early primaries and in nationwide polling has stood out as the lone candidate with a chance of winning in November.
Seems simple, right? Well, maybe not. Election season can involve more ups and downs than a Caddy with hydraulics. Measured in political time, the general election is still light-years away. Circumstances change, and a candidate who may appear to hold the keys to the White House today could find himself locked out come November. And the candidate who looks like a total washout now could be best positioned to win by the fall.
Just four months ago, John Kerry's campaign was in disarray as several top aides had either quit or were fired; today he is the front-runner. Another example: A poll released Wednesday by CNN/USA Today/Gallop shows that John Edwards, on the strength of his surprise finish in Wisconsin, could win the general election just as easily as Kerry could. Now who's more electable? And look at the rags-to-riches-to-rags ride of the Howard Dean campaign.
High school senior Beth Ryder-Kenna knows this quandary well. When she started thinking about voting in the Maine caucus, Dennis Kucinich's ideas got her fired up. "He has really strong beliefs about the environment, about trade and the war in Iraq," she said. But when she showed up at the caucus, Beth threw her support behind John Kerry. "John Kerry actually has a chance to win an election against George Bush, which is the most important thing for any Democrat right now," she confessed.
Beth and thousands of other voters are exercising skills in compromise and strategy. Not only are they supporting the candidate who seems the most "presidential," but they're also voting for the man they think other people are voting for.
So with electability being such a major yet unpredictable issue, what's a confused primary voter to do? Perhaps taking a guess at what's going to happen over the next few months will help. Consider just a few of the possibilities:
- The situation in Iraq worsens: Attacks increase and so do U.S. casualties. It becomes increasingly apparent that Iraq is going to continue to be a sticky situation. Advantage: Howard Dean (who remains on ballots even though he has ceased to campaign), for being the only major candidate who clearly expressed opposition to the war from the start. Also helped: a ticket that would include General Wesley Clark as vice president, and Kerry, who also has extensive foreign policy experience.
- Things turn around in Iraq: Full, free, democratic elections take place there in June. The country becomes the first legitimate democracy in the Arab world, and the nation's oil output returns to normal. Advantage: John Edwards, for being the only remaining candidate to stand by his decision to vote for the war resolution, given the information he had. Bigger advantage: Bush, for continuing to stress the importance of work in Iraq.
- The economy tanks: The unemployment rate spikes to 7.5 percent, more white-collar jobs are exported overseas, and anger builds among the middle class. Advantage: John Edwards for having the best "us versus them" populist message and, unlike Kerry, a truly middle-class upbringing.
- The economy takes off: Unemployment drops as personal incomes jump. The Dow climbs past 12,000, and the warm glow of economic prosperity fills the land. Advantage: Bush. Disadvantage: every Democrat.
We found some young people who've also been wrestling with how to approach the upcoming presidential election, juggling the factors of candidates' stance on the issues, their personalities, leadership qualities and, of course, their electability. Check out what they had to say:
- Genevieve from Northwestern University on the issues
- Peter from Columbia University on leadership
- Laurence from the University of Michigan on electability
- Adrian from New York on personality
For more political news, insight into the 2004 presidential election and information on registering to vote, check out ChooseorLose.com.