The “can’t win technique” is a campaign strategy used during the primary season. Typically, it means telling delegates and voters that your rival can’t possibly win the general election. The idea is to present one candidate as more electable, while diminishing the other, more exciting candidate.
In the mid 20th century, Robert A. Taft was an ambitious senator from Ohio. His father, of course, was the former president William Howard Taft. A fiscally conservative Republican, Taft led a coalition of Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans; he was considered a formidable foe to President Truman. Taft was widely known as “Mr. Republican” and was seen as a natural opponent to the East Coast, moderate branch of the GOP.
Taft tried to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1940, 1948, and 1952. By the second time he ran, Taft’s rivals were declaring that “Taft can’t win.” And sure enough, Taft lost the Republican nomination in 1948. In 1952, Taft’s rivals again convinced the Republican party bosses that Taft didn’t have a chance. Eisenhower ran against him and won. The race is generally seen as a contest between a moderate (Eisenhower) and a hardliner (Taft), but it’s also an instance of the can’t win technique at work.
Further back in American history, a man named Henry Clay fell victim to the can’t win technique. Clay, known as the “great compromiser,” was running for the Whig nomination to the presidency in 1840. That’s when Thurlow Weed, a political boss who wanted Martin van Buren to win, started a campaign to convince Whigs that Clay didn’t have a chance of winning. Weed’s plan was effective. (Years later, a bitter-sounding Clay said, “I’d rather be right than be president.)
In modern elections, voters often agonize over who the most “electable” candidate might be. The more polarized the electorate, the more voters fret about electability. In the lead up to the 2020 presidential election, many Democratic voters said that they wanted to choose whichever candidate had the best chance of defeating the incumbent president, Donald Trump. Unfortunately, though, this led to what some journalists called a feedback loop, or a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As NBC News described the can’t win technique: Some pundits and voters say one candidate — former Vice President Joe Biden — is the most electable, so they tell pollsters they want Biden, which produces media coverage that reinforces the idea that Biden is most electable, which then filters back down to voters concerned about “electability.”
And in fact, some people – like the pollster Nate Silver – argue that it’s almost impossible to know who is truly electable:
Political scientists study electability, but electability ain’t no science. Instead, researchers say, it’s basically a layer of ex post facto rationalization that we slather over a stack of psychological biases, media influence and self-fulfilling poll prophecies. It’s not bullshit, exactly; some people really are more likely to be elected than others. But the reasons behind it, and the ability to make assumptions based on it, well …