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Enough With Electability

Voters are not prophets and should focus on issues

By Jarret A. Zafran

Some of the most interesting things to observe as we near the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire Primary are voters’ opinions on which candidates are most “electable.”

I have heard the case made by many voters, campaign workers, and pundits that Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) is the most electable (as a tough and experienced campaigner) and the most unelectable (as a divisive and polarizing figure). Others have said that former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), a white male protestant, is the Dems “sure thing” heading into ’08. On the other side, many claim that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani would suddenly put states like New York and New Jersey into play for the Republicans, thus putting the Democrats on the defensive and retaining the White House for GOP control.

In truth, there is no way to know which candidate might be elected until we know who they’ll be running against. If political ideology were the measure, it would not make sense for polls to show Edwards and Giuliani, viewed now as the left and center candidates respectively of their parties, in a dead heat. If electability was determined by race or experience, then the half-black and “inexperienced” Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) wouldn’t have consistently been ahead of the veteran senator (and actual veteran) Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the polls since April. In fact, aside from underperformance by the still nationally unknown Governor Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) and Senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), all of the Democrats and all of the Republicans perform fairly consistently, regardless of who they are matched up against.

It seems that everyone has a different definition of what it takes to be elected. Political ideology, personality, campaign experience, and characteristics like race, gender, and religion have all been cited as potential deciding factors in the upcoming presidential race. With such disagreement on which of these factors will prove most important, national polls seem the only true way to gauge electability—but as we’ve seen, the polls show no clear trends.

Edwards has argued that he is the most electable based on how the electoral map will look, saying, “I am the strongest candidate on the Democratic side in these battleground areas.” Anti-Clintonites have cited a recent Zogby poll that showed 50 percent of the country would never vote for her, the highest percentage of opposition for any candidate of either party. But according to a recent Times/CBS News poll, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire consider her the most electable among Democrats.

While electability will still remain important for many individuals, taking a broad look at early-state voters and the nation as a whole shows a striking lack of consensus. So, please repeat after me: I will stop worrying about electability since I really don’t know how things will be. I will focus on issues and choose the candidate best suited to be president.

That wasn’t so bad, was it? I understand where voters are coming from. Democrats and Republicans alike believe that the most important thing is for their party take the White House, with the identity of the man or woman occupying it only a functioning as a secondary concern. But 2008 is a pivotal year, and the problems we face are too urgent and multitudinous to ignore the very important differences between candidates.

Senators Clinton and Obama support nuclear power, while Senator Edwards does not. Obama’s health care plan does not mandate insurance for all adults, whereas the plans put forth by Clinton and Edwards do include mandatory coverage. Clinton and Obama voted to support the U.S.-Mexico border fence, while Edwards and border state Governor Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) oppose its construction. Clinton voted to ban partial-birth abortions, while Obama and Edwards did not. Obama supports merit pay for teachers, the others do not.

Among Republicans, opinions diverge as well. John McCain would support a cap-and-trade system to control emissions, and opposes drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Giuliani and Thompson oppose a cap-and-trade program and support drilling in ANWR. McCain and Giuliani support embryonic stem-cell research while Romney and Thompson do not. While Romney said America “ought to double Guantanamo,” McCain would close it immediately.

Ultimately, despite the fact that the vast majority of differences are between parties and not within them, the candidates on each side do vary in character, background, and ideology. Since nobody truly knows who the best candidate would be for each party politically, we should actually vote for the person we like the best. A radical suggestion, I know.

I don’t blame voters in Iowa and New Hampshire for trying to find the great white hope of their party, hoping to make sure the next occupant of the White House reflects their deepest held beliefs. But our pragmatism often fails. In 2004, John Kerry rose quickly at the very end to win the primary states because he was seen as the best candidate to win the general election. He probably wasn’t.

Sure, you have the country’s best interest in mind when deciding if Rudy or Mitt is better to defeat the evil Hillary-monster, but please, vote with your heart this time, not your head.

Jarret A. Zafran ’09 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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