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Information and Perceptions of Electability in Primary Elections (WP-24-13)

Sarah Anderson, Barry Burden, Daniel Butler, Laurel Harbridge-Yong, and Timothy Ryan

When citizens vote in primary elections, they have good reason to consider each candidate’s electability—the chances of winning the general election if they become their party’s nominee. Although electability perceptions are potentially a critical determinant of who wins, little is known about how voters form such perceptions. Using a pre-registered experiment conducted against the backdrop of competitive senatorial and gubernatorial elections in 2022, the researchers examine three candidate attributes that plausibly shape voters’ perceptions of electability: ideological moderation, experience in elected office, and campaign fundraising success. They find that Republican and Democratic primary voters develop and apply electability perceptions in different ways: Where Democratic primary voters interpret ideological moderation as a sign of electability, Republican voters’ perceptions draw more heavily on information about candidate fundraising. These results provide important insights into how primary voters evaluate candidates and illustrate one source of asymmetric polarization.

Sarah Anderson, Professor, University of California, Santa Barbara

Barry Burden, Lyons Family Professor of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Daniel Butler, Professor of Political Science, Washington University in St. Louis

Laurel Harbridge-Yong, Professor of Political Science and IPR Fellow, Northwestern University

Timothy Ryan, Professor of Political Science, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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