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A Radical Idea: Vote Your Conscience in the Presidential Primary

Democrats spend a lot of time thinking about what Democratic voters might be thinking about. Columnist Christopher Hooks argues that this focus on electability isn't how primaries are supposed to work.


A version of this story ran in the January / February 2020 issue.

Above: Actual voters—especially self-described “moderates”—are idiosyncratic. Their behavior is hard to predict.

As the 2020 presidential election draws closer, a lot of people are struggling to make up their minds—about what is in other people’s minds. The last election was a disorienting experience that made Americans second-guess the way they thought things worked in politics, and the intervening years have been disorienting too. It makes sense that some people are wondering how to make the system work in their favor again. The problem is that people aren’t very good at knowing what other people think, and that sometimes, asking this simple question can lead them astray.

One way this has been playing out in the Democratic primary is the question of “electability.” People want somebody who can beat Trump, understandably. But the effect that’s had in polls is harder to parse. In polls, many Democrats express support for Elizabeth Warren, who draws thousands to her rallies, but she’s dogged in those same polls by the perception that other voters won’t like her. Joe Biden, meanwhile, gets a tepid reception most everywhere he goes, yet he remains the front-runner partly because people believe he’s a candidate others would prefer.

Is that true, though? Part of the reason people think so is due to the head-to-head polls that often show Biden doing well against Trump, with Warren a little behind. Another explanation for Biden’s stronger showing is that he has high name recognition and a soft glow left over from his VP days. But that’s misleading, too, because it’s unclear how Biden will look to voters in November after nearly another year of scrutiny. Case in point: In 2015, Hillary Clinton was fairly popular and Trump very unpopular, and look how that worked out.

Finally, the feeling that the country might “need” a Biden is tied into the question of which voters count. The 2016 election postmortem led media to spend thousands of hours exploring the worldview of conservative-leaning voters in the Rust Belt. But journalists are always covering the last war. Those voters counted for a lot in 2016; the next election may swing on a completely different set of people. Good candidates make their own coalitions. Plus, pursuing one group may steer you wrong with another. If Dems decide the key is white moderates and thus vote for Pete Buttigieg, his congenital weakness with African American voters could cost them places like Michigan.

People want somebody who can beat Trump, understandably. But the effect that’s had in polls is harder to parse.

A better way to do this—the way a primary is supposed to work—is for each voter to support the person they feel is the best candidate, under the theory that if enough people agree, they probably are the best candidate. A politician capable of besting a 15-person primary field likely has the political aptitude to contest a general election. Besides, actual voters—especially self-described “moderates”—are idiosyncratic. Their behavior is hard to predict. What you do know, as a primary voter, is who excites you and who would do the same for those close to you.

There’s a phenomenon in behavioral theory called the Abilene Paradox. Four family members are sitting contentedly on a porch in the small town of Coleman when the father, thinking the others might be bored, suggests the group drive to dinner in Abilene, an hour away. His wife agrees, thinking it’s what her husband wants to do, and the other two fall in line, thinking the group has reached a consensus. On the way home, the four realize that all of them would have much preferred not to go. A group of people can quite easily unite to make a decision where everyone suffers, if they misunderstand what the others are thinking.

This happens all the time. Watching the primary, it’s hard not to wonder if Democrats, with their fretting about one another and guys named Troy in Erie, Pennsylvania, are on the hot road to Abilene too. The thing is, it’s not hard to avoid the Abilene Paradox. People simply need to stop imagining what other people are thinking and articulate their own preferences and principles, hold to them, and come up with a reasonable compromise, if one is needed. As they cast votes, Democrats might be better off putting themselves first in the new year—or risk ending up with a weak candidate and a misguided theory of how to win the election. I don’t know what’s in your mind, but that’s what’s in mine.

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