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Electability Problems And Problems With Electability Arguments

Bearing in mind that head-to-head matchups ten months before Election Day are awfully unreliable guides to actual performance and also keeping in mind that electability arguments are fraught with danger, I nonetheless agree with this conclusion (via Sullivan):

With key primaries coming up in Michigan and South Carolina, support for Romney would seem to indicate a powerful and problematic Republican death wish.

This seems right to me, but not necessarily because Romney performs poorly in head-to-head general election scenarios.  Those sorts of polls have been coming out for months, and the lesser known candidates are always doing worse against the better-known celebrity candidates.  (Fred Thompson has the unfortunate distinction of being a celebrity candidate who is nonetheless surprisingly little known by name.)  It has been tempting to use them to bash Romney, but these polls actually show a lack of name recognition and familiarity with the weaker candidates.  Those of us who have been following this election for the past year may find it incredible that there is still someone who doesn’t know who Mitt Romney is (some of us envy those who have remained so blissfully ignorant), but we must remember that most people are not so foolish as to have wasted their time on election coverage throughout 2007.  If Mitt Romney is getting blown out by Barack Obama in a national poll, any number of factors might explain this that have nothing to do with how Romney would perform in a general election.  Media exposure, and positive media exposure at that, has to play a major role.  What the weak poll showing by Romney reflects is the bare minimum percentage of the population that can be counted to vote for the Republican candidate virtually no matter what.  Add a well-known quantity or a celebrity candidate, and you will get additional support on top of that–that does not necessarily reflect how well a candidate would do in the actual election.  The percentage of undecided voters in these match-ups is usually quite large, because most people haven’t the foggiest who Romney or Huckabee are.  Those who are choosing Romney or Huckabee in spite of knowing little or nothing about them are reliably Republican voters.  The undecided voters who still need more information represent the part of the electorate that is less committed to either party.   

Electability arguments are treacherous.  Let’s remember, if we can, those long-ago days when people were very proudly declaring that Giuliani was going to redraw the electoral map (New Jersey and Connecticut would be in play once more!) and be a very electable general election candidate.  He was supposed to be the Clinton-slayer, and you were supposed to bow before him because he was going to save you from Hillary.  He has been so electable that he currently has zero delegates, and is on pace to acquire none on Tuesday and perhaps a handful on Saturday.  Duncan Hunter has managed to acquire more delegates than Giuliani at this point.  One problem with electability arguments is that it assumes that the candidate can get to a point where such a trait matters. 

I would be wary of putting too much emphasis on general election polls that show McCain to be very competitive with named Democrats, since Giuliani performed well in similar polls, but I would also note that those who have pushed McCain’s electability have also assumed that he had a very difficult road to the nomination after the immigration fight last summer.  I am beginning to think that the latter assumption is the one that has been unexpectedly wrong, and it is instead McCain’s electability that we should question.  All things being equal, McCain ought to have a hard time getting the nomination.  Many conservative activists loathe the man almost as much as they loathe Huckabee.  Yet we seem to be seeing a divergence between what most activists have been saying and what at least a plurality of Republican voters actually prefer.  As of late last summer, the divided field was supposed to deliver the nomination to Giuliani.  In his place now stands McCain (his national polling and Giuliani’s have switched places almost exactly and, one assumes, exchanged  many supporters), who stands to benefit from the Romney-Huckabee war and the desultory sniping of Fred Thompson.  As for electability, these poll results reflect the very vague associations people have with well-known politicians, especially media darlings such as McCain, so it is hard to credit McCain’s apparent competitiveness to his own virtues as a candidate.  

P.S. The new CBS/NYT poll confirms that large numbers of Republicans (approximately one third) don’t know anything about Romney.  Romney has another problem: more of those who do know something about him view him unfavourably than favourably.  No big surprise there.

That same poll reveals how perilous and ultimately absurd claims about electability are.  Since electability really comes down to a question of perception, evidence of your electability disappears as soon as something better seems to come along.  Thus Giuliani was seen as the best candidate to win the general election by 43% last month (now at 12%, behind Huckabee), and this month 41% think this of McCain (while 7% thought so a month ago).  Should McCain lose in Michigan and South Carolina, these numbers will swing dramatically yet again.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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