What is Electability?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

The Constitution of the United States only requires candidates for political office meet certain minimal age and residency standards. In theory, any citizen who meets that criteria can run for public office with or without the financial and philosophical support of the major political parties. But the reality is that certain candidates seem to possess more of the qualities which resonate with voters. This often intangible combination of experience, personal charisma and voter appeal is known as electability.

Though the election of 1960 was unusually close, some historians have argued that Richard Nixon had less "electability" than John F. Kennedy because he lacked his competitor's charisma.
Though the election of 1960 was unusually close, some historians have argued that Richard Nixon had less "electability" than John F. Kennedy because he lacked his competitor's charisma.

Electability is often easier observed than defined in political circles. A number of qualified candidates from both the Democrat and Republican parties may decide to run for an office, but ultimately only a few will be viewed as electable. Party leaders would prefer to promote the candidate who demonstrates the most electability, even if that candidate is not the most popular among partisan voters. There are a number of factors which determine the electability of a particular candidate, and not all of these factors can be easily delineate.

In theory, anyone who meets the requirements of the Constitution may be elected.
In theory, anyone who meets the requirements of the Constitution may be elected.

One factor which determines a particular candidate's electability is overall political experience. Someone who has worked his or her way up from lesser offices to a powerful federal government position may be seen as more electable than a political newcomer, for example. Voters tend to look for evidence the candidate can handle high-pressure situations and intense political opposition. Experience and personal temperament under pressure can improve a candidate's electability.

John F. Kennedy's charisma made him more accessible to potential voters.
John F. Kennedy's charisma made him more accessible to potential voters.

Another factor for determining electability is personal charisma and voter appeal. Modern election campaigns are largely about perception of the candidates as future representatives of the country as a whole. Voters tend to feel more comfortable with candidates they can identify with on a personal level. A candidate who exudes a significant amount of personal charisma or an authoritative image on television may be seen as more electable than a candidate who does not stand out from the crowd. Many voters in 1960 chose the more charismatic John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon, a man who rarely looked comfortable on camera.

Being able to confidently speck in front of voters can increase a candidate's electability.
Being able to confidently speck in front of voters can increase a candidate's electability.

Some political pundits define electability as an ability to defeat the other party's candidate in a general election. A candidate can become very popular within his or her own party, but fail to demonstrate a clear advantage over his or her presumed opposition. In this sense, electability is a quality many people understand instinctively when evaluating political candidates, but cannot be readily defined. Some political candidates such as Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton may be unfairly judged by their race or gender, but part of the electability equation is whether or not a particular candidate will be accepted by the general voting population.

Barack Obama overcame some perceived electability issues related to his race to become President in 2008.
Barack Obama overcame some perceived electability issues related to his race to become President in 2008.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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