Maybe Candidate ‘Electability’ Isn’t So Decisive After All

by Stuart Rothenberg January 28, 2008 · 8:05 AM EST

Ever since Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) beat Howard Dean in Iowa in 2004 and went on to win the Democratic presidential nomination, we have heard that voters are becoming more strategic in their decision- making. They want to nominate someone who can win, not merely the candidate they agree with or like.

If anything, that view has been elevated to a political truth this cycle. Journalists and pundits tell us that Republicans want a nominee who can beat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), while Democrats want to make certain that they win the White House in 2008, ending eight years of GOP control of the executive branch.

And yet even a cursory view of the early entrance and exit polls, as well as of the discussions in both parties of late, yields but a single conclusion: So far, electability isn’t all that it is cracked up to be.

When asked in this year’s Iowa entrance poll which candidate quality mattered the most to them, only 8 percent of Democrats said electability, while a majority, 52 percent, said “can bring change.” Only 7 percent of Republicans cited “electability” as the candidate quality that mattered the most to them.

Just four years ago, a stunning 26 percent of Democrats in the Iowa entrance poll said that “can beat Bush” was the most important quality they were looking for in making their choice of whom to support in the caucuses.

The numbers in New Hampshire were not very different. This year’s Granite State exit poll found just 6 percent of Democrats and 5 percent of Republicans responding that electability was the top candidate quality they were looking for. Four years ago, 20 percent of New Hampshire Democratic primary voters said the ability to defeat George W. Bush was the top candidate quality they were looking for.

Of course, it’s possible that Democrats decided earlier this year that either of their top two presidential contenders could win the White House in the fall, which would mean that caucus and primary participants could focus on qualities other than “electability.” Still, the data undermine all of the early media attention to “electability” as a key factor in this cycle’s presidential nominating process.

Of the top-tier Democratic candidates, former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) has invested heavily in the “electability” argument, and it has not done him much good. Of late, a couple of Clinton surrogates raised electability in their effort to discredit Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) before the Nevada Democratic caucuses, and the Obama campaign has fired back this week with an e-mail arguing that the Illinois Senator is the most electable Democrat in the race based on recent polling.

But if “electability” hasn’t seemed all that important to Democratic voters so far, the issue has all but disappeared in the GOP race.

Rarely do the top Republican candidates mine for votes by emphasizing their ability to win the general election, even though there is persuasive evidence that one or two Republican candidates would have a better chance to keep the White House in November.

On Saturday night, interviewing Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) after his victory speech, Fox’s Sean Hannity raised electability, suggesting that it may have been a reason McCain had won. While the Senator readily agreed that he was the “most electable” Republican in the field, he quickly changed the subject to what he would do as president.

McCain’s response was wise, since voters usually prefer to hear politicians speak about policy rather than process, but it nevertheless is noteworthy that the Arizona Republican didn’t spend at least a little more time talking about his ability to defeat Clinton in the general election.

National head-to-head general election tests demonstrate that McCain runs better than any other Republican against either Clinton or Obama. McCain runs even or a few points ahead of both Democrats, while other GOP hopefuls fare far worse.

Yet not only has McCain not pushed that argument, but he also continues to have problems in primaries with self-identified Republican and conservative voters — two groups that you would think would be particularly sensitive to an electability argument (especially if Clinton is the eventual Democratic nominee).

The cross tabs from Iowa and New Hampshire certainly should have Democrats at the very least concerned about the electability question, especially if Clinton is her party’s nominee for president.

If McCain does find a way to win the GOP nomination, he’ll have considerable appeal to independent voters and moderates — just the kinds of voters who have preferred Obama over Clinton. That would give McCain a clear road map to a victory, something few other Republicans have.

Electability ultimately may decide one or both party nominations later this year. But so far, it hasn’t been that big of a deal, even in those places where it was of great concern to Democrats four years ago.