Electability, Shmelectability?

In an article called “All the Electable Republicans Are Losing,” Kristin Soltis Anderson points out that the candidates whom the polls deem most likely to beat Hillary Clinton are faltering in GOP polling. She has in mind Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, both of whom are struggling, while candidates presumed to be unelectable, like Donald Trump and Ben Carson, have surged.

The title of the article is somewhat misleading. Kristin acknowledges that at this stage, we don’t know with a high degree of confidence which Republicans are electable.

Virtually all of them might be if Hillary Clinton collapses, yet receives the Democratic nomination. None might be if Hillary skates past her present woes and the economy picks up substantially. Nor can we be sure now how the various GOP contenders will be viewed by voters at this time next year if they make it through the many challenges of the nomination process.

Kristin notes that “electability” isn’t high on the list of attributes Republican voters say they are looking for. This, she suggests, is due to (1) disillusionment with the performance of “electable” Republicans John McCain and Mitt Romney and (2) the sense that Hillary Clinton may prove easy to beat.

My sense is that, barring a collapse by Clinton, electability will emerge as an important consideration by the time we reach the primaries. There’s really no reason to focus on it now. With plenty of talented candidates on display, this is the time to enjoy the show, take the candidates at face value, and evaluate them accordingly.

At this stage, focusing on electability seems like overthinking unless you’re a pollster or a pundit.

But here we come to what I think is the most striking piece of evidence in Kristin’s article. When pollsters ask Republican voters to focus on electability, a plurality consider Donald Trump the most electable GOP candidate. 22 percent view him as such. Jeb Bush is second at 16 percent, followed by Scott Walker (11 percent) and Marco Rubio (9 percent).

Why does Trump win on electablility? It’s not simply because people want to view their top choice as electable. Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and Ted Cruz all drop out of the polling top tier when the question of electability is posed.

In my view, Trump is viewed by many as “most electable” because he’s considered a winner. If he’s the man who gets big things done, why can’t those things include winning the presidency?

Nor do the polls truly undercut this narrative. Right now, Kristin observes, Trump trails Clinton by only 5 points.

If electability becomes a serious concern for GOP voters, Trump will have to sustain the perception that he can win. This means maintaining decent numbers in head-to-head polling against Clinton. It doesn’t necessarily mean less bombast — that style probably reinforces his image as a doer and a winner — but the kind of gaffes he has skated past until now (e.g., McCain isn’t a war hero) are best avoided.

Trump’s biggest problem is that so many Republican voters seem dead set against him. Though many of these Republicans probably doubt that he can be elected, I doubt that electability is their main objection. (I know it’s not mine — ideology is #1 and temperament is #2).

Therefore, even if perceived as electable, Trump is unlikely to be the GOP nominee.