The polls are asking the wrong question

The polls are asking the wrong question
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There is a great deal of thoughtful analysis generated by the pundits regarding the question of who the best Democratic candidate will be to challenge President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House sued over lack of sign language interpreters at coronavirus briefings Wife blames Trump, lack of masks for husband's coronavirus death in obit: 'May Karma find you all' Trump authorizes reduced funding for National Guard coronavirus response through 2020 MORE — assuming he’s not defeated by a Republican challenger in the Republican primary or forced out of office before the November 2020 election.

For many analysts, the question concerns electability versus likability. Other pundits focus on authenticity. Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump campaign emails supporters encouraging mask-wearing: 'We have nothing to lose' Cuba spells trouble for Bass's VP hopes Democrats want Biden to debate Trump despite risks MORE is typically regarded as the most electable candidate. Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersCuba spells trouble for Bass's VP hopes Trump Spanish-language ad equates progressives, socialists Biden's tax plan may not add up MORE (I-Vt.) is frequently regarded as most inspirational. Although other candidates — including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegFormer Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan dies How Republicans can embrace environmentalism and win In politics, as in baseball, it ain't over till it's over MORE — score high on the likability or inspirational scale also.

The candidate who emerges will of course be the candidate who gets selected by voters in Democratic primaries. Pundits can talk from now till next summer and it doesn't matter what consensus they reach, if any. The pundit discussions today are valuable only to the extent that they influence voters or organizations that are supporting candidates; otherwise, the discussions are only of academic interest.  


No one really knows who the most electable candidate is or whether the most inspirational candidate would make a good president. These questions are impossible to answer in advance. Indeed, there isn’t even agreement on what precisely the questions mean, let alone whether they can be answered.  

What does it really mean to ask, “Which candidate is most electable?” The idea seems to be that the candidate in question is more likely to be elected than other candidates of the same party. This candidate would be a better opponent against Trump. Other candidates might be more likable or inspirational, but they would be weaker against Trump.

This concept is really suspect. Does anyone really know whether Biden is more electable than Warren? Voters may think that they know this, but do they really? 

It’s all a guessing game, even when based on social scientific evidence. It’s worth pointing out that political analysts do not always agree after an election what factors were responsible for the election of one candidate over another. Is there any sound basis to think that voters could know in advance which candidates would be strongest against Trump?

What if Biden gets the nomination and then cannot keep up with Trump on the campaign trail? What if Trump out-muscles Biden in the debates? This is all possible. The majority or plurality of voters may think Biden is more electable, but this is just an educated guess.  


Voters really need to focus on a less complex question, namely "Who do I want to be president?" This is the question that asks you to put aside your calculator and your history book and your iPhone with the latest polls.

Remarkably, few polls ask this question. They ask who is better qualified, who is more electable, who is more likable, and who has views more like yours. But they don’t ask who you want to be president. Perhaps the pollsters think that all of those other questions really answer the big one, but they don't.

It might actually hurt Democratic voters to overthink the question of who to vote for in the primaries. Once you inject empirical calculation into the voting process, you sap it of its purity and its passion. You subordinate the question of “Who do I want to be president?” to a different question — “Who is most electable?” or “Who is most inspirational?” 

The only question voters should ask when it comes to their caucus or their primary remains the simple question: “Who do I want to be our president?”

If voters treat their votes in this way, then they will always know that the candidate they chose had pure, unadulterated, uncalculated power behind them. If the power of this kind of voting doesn't win the general election, then Democrats should have nothing to regret —  they will have voted with their hearts, minds, and souls.

Dave Anderson is the editor of “Leveraging: A Political, Economic, and Societal Framework” (Springer, 2014). He is also the author of "Youth04: Young Voters, the Internet, and Political Power" (W.W. Norton & Company, 2004) and co-editor of "The Civic Web: Online Politics and Democratic Values" (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). He has taught at George Washington University, the University of Cincinnati, and Johns Hopkins University. He was a candidate in the 2016 Democratic Primary in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District. Contact him at