Do Primary Candidates' Policy Proposals Matter?

by Michael C. Dorf

As a primary voter, how much, if at all, should you care about policy differences among the candidates, given the fact that many of the key proposals require congressional approval that will not likely be forthcoming from Congress, absent a change in the cloture rule? Here I'll defend the following answer: Some, but mostly because of what they indicate about the candidate's priorities rather than because of the policies themselves.

Let me unpack that paragraph using the current Democratic field as illustrative, although what I say here should be equally applicable in a Republican primary, albeit with different policies. Suppose you have narrowed down your choices to two candidates. One of them--let's call her Warren--favors Medicare for All. The other--let's call him Buttigieg--favors Medicare for All Who Want It. Let's assume that in all other respects you are in equipoise between these two candidates. One rather straightforward way to decide whom to vote for is by asking yourself whose policy you prefer.

But you realize that although Buttigieg's proposal is to the right of Warren's, the 60th Senator whose vote would be needed to pass any substantial health care reform measure is to the right of Buttigieg. Thus, neither Medicare for All nor Medicare for All Who Want It will become law in either a Warren or a Buttigieg administration. The most you can expect is some tinkering around the edges of and expansion of the Affordable Care Act. Accordingly, you should not base your choice between Warren and Buttigieg on whose health insurance reform proposal more closely matches your own policy druthers. Right?

Mostly, but not entirely.
To begin, maybe you're wrong about the Senate. Maybe Warren would be a transformational candidate whose coattails would sweep in a 60+ majority in the Senate. Or, given the map, somewhat more realistically, maybe she would do well enough to barely wrest control of the Senate for Democrats (still a mighty feat given the map), and her mandate would lead the new Senators to exercise the nuclear option and abandon the requirement of 60 votes for cloture. If you think either of these scenarios is more than a pipe dream, and if you favor Medicare for All, then you should vote for Warren--provided you also think that Warren has at least as good a chance of winning the general election as Buttigieg does.

That last qualifier is important. I regard every second the Trump presidency continues as a repudiation of fundamental principles of representative government and minimal human decency, so regardless of which health care policy I favored,* I would vote for the candidate I think has the better chance of winning the general election.

But which candidate is that? Over the last couple of weeks or so, the Warren-is-too-far-left-to-win-the-general meme has exploded. Together with nervousness over Biden's lackluster campaign, that meme has fueled the Buttigieg boomlet. Buttigieg may be peaking too early, however, as there is still plenty of time for a Buttigieg-doesn't-appeal-to-African-American-voters concern, which is both a problem for Buttigieg's ability to secure the nomination and a reason to worry about how he would do in the general election.

Winning the general election requires some combination of appealing to independents and mobilizing the base. Other things being equal, a centrist candidate will do better at appealing to independents, while a more progressive candidate (or more right-wing in a GOP primary) will do better at mobilizing the base. Ideal is a centrist who excites the base. Obama was such a candidate; his centrism appealed to independents; the historic nature of his candidacy excited both African American voters and liberal voters who are not African Americans. But Obama may have been a one-time phenomenon. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have been running in the centrist African American lane, thus far without much success (discounting Harris's 15 minutes following her confrontation with Biden over busing). There is reason to doubt that Deval Patrick (a fellow Reinhardt alum whom I have known and admired for three decades!) will do better. Sigh.

I hope I'm wrong and Governor Patrick (or Senator Booker, aka "the first Vegan President!") catches fire. But for now, let's keep the thought experiment confined to Senator Warren and Mayor Pete. Completely apart from whether you favor Medicare for All versus Medicare for All Who Want It on policy grounds, you might consider the question which policy makes its respective proponent more electable. But that gets us right back to the independents-versus-turnout question. Medicare for All will excite the base more; Medicare for All Who Want It will have greater appeal to independents. Which effect is larger? Political experts disagree. How is an ordinary voter to predict?

The short answer is you do the best you can. I strongly suspect that within fairly broad bounds, most voters think the answer to the question "which candidate is most likely to win the general election?" is the same as the answer to the question "which candidate do I like most?". Given the independents-versus-turnout tradeoff, one can make a plausible case that any candidate who is able to win the nomination of a major party is best positioned to win the general. A centrist winner will appeal to independents. A more left-leaning (or in the Republican primaries, right-leaning) candidate will excite the base. Human psychology being what it is, a great many voters will conclude that the candidate they think is best will also be the best at appealing to other voters.

Even without succumbing to cognitive biases, a reasonable voter might think "I don't know who's most likely to win the general, so I might as well vote my conscience and support the plausible candidate I like the most." Even so, one might ask whether liking a candidate based on a policy that will not get enacted due to Senate blockage makes sense. Suppose you are in equipoise as between Warren and Buttigieg based on personality, experience, and other non-policy factors. Suppose further that you favor Medicare for All over Medicare for All Who Want It, but you realize that even Medicare for All Who Want It won't get enacted. Should your preference for Warren's policy make a difference anyway?

Maybe just a little. Policies that cannot realistically be adopted tell voters something about a candidate's priorities. Perhaps Warren would do more via executive action within the bounds of existing law than Buttigieg would. Or perhaps she would be more aggressive in filling judicial vacancies with progressive judges. Policy proposals that won't get enacted are nonetheless informative about a candidate--at least a little.

* Readers might be wondering what health insurance policy I favor. The short answer is that I don't have a strong view on the question. I do think that, at a minimum, a decent society provides universal coverage one way or another. I also think that we spend too much time arguing over how to pay for health care and not nearly enough time talking about how people can eat and live in ways that will do a great deal to improve their health without medical intervention.