Will ‘Electability’ Sink Trump?

by Stuart Rothenberg January 5, 2016 · 9:30 AM EST

Most national polls show Republican frontrunner Donald Trump trailing likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and faring worse than other GOP hopefuls against her.

That raises an obvious question: Could doubts about Trump’s strength in a general election derail his bid for the Republican nomination, or would GOP caucus attendees and primary voters simply ignore poll numbers that suggest Trump would be a risky bet in November?

For the moment, Trump need not worry about electability.

A Dec. 4-8 CBS News/New York Times poll found 51 percent of Republicans believed he would be their party’s nominee in 2016. Trump had a commanding 19-point lead over Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the national GOP ballot, and Republican voters said that nominating a strong leader (42 percent) or someone honest and trustworthy (30 percent) was more important than nominating someone who could win a general election (6 percent).

A Dec. 16-17 Fox News poll found a large plurality of Republican primary voters believed that Trump had the best chance of any Republican to defeat Clinton.

But Quinnipiac University’s Dec. 16-20 survey showed Trump’s image with all registered voters at 33 percent favorable/59 percent unfavorable – dismal numbers, and the highest unfavorable rating of any GOP hopeful.

Trump trailed Clinton by 11 points, 49 percent to 38 percent, in the mid-December Fox News ballot test, while Cruz and Clinton were tied at 45 percent and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio held a 45 percent to 43 percent lead over Clinton. The Quinnipiac poll found Trump trailing Clinton 47 percent to 40 percent, while Cruz and Clinton were tied at 44 percent and Rubio trailed Clinton by a single point, 44 percent to 43 percent.

But not every survey showed Trump trailing Clinton so dramatically in hypothetical match ups. For example, a Dec. 17-21 CNN/ORC survey showed the two candidates separated by only two points (Clinton 49 percent, Trump 47 percent). Of course, Cruz held a 2-point lead over Clinton and Rubio a 3-point lead in that survey, seemingly confirming that Trump is a weaker nominee against Clinton than at least two other Republican hopefuls.

But even if additional surveys between now and the Iowa caucuses show Trump’s relative weakness in the general election, it is not yet clear that GOP voters – and Trump voters – will care. Opinion about the importance of “electability” as an issue for voters has been divided over the years.

At one end of the continuum is Nate Silver, who wrote on his FiveThirtyEight website in April 2008 that “voters don’t care about electability.”

“Voters don’t vote on electability because doing so means you’re essentially vetoing your own candidate preference,” he wrote, continuing that voters “get to cast one vote for their party’s nomination for the Presidency every four years, and they aren’t about to let it be dictated based on their guesses about how other people will behave.”

Two veteran GOP consultants I recently talked with echoed that view, though one worried that if electability could ever be a factor, 2016 might be it.

Ed Kilgore at The Democratic Strategist also questioned the importance of electability, both in a 2008 piece and again in a 2011 article, as did Jason Zengerle, who blasted the idea that voters considered it in a lengthy 2007 New York magazine piece on the 2008 presidential race.

On the other side of the argument are former Des Moines Register political guru David Yepsen, Slate’s William Saletan, Matt Bai (who was writing for The New York Times magazine at the time), ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and the April 16, 2008, ABC News/Washington Post poll, which in a release referred to electability as “one of three tent poles of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president.”

“In both parties, issues of electability are motivating many activists,” wrote Yepsen in an August 16, 2007, Politico piece about the races for the 2008 Republican and Democratic nomination.

Yepsen went on to cite a 2004 Iowa Poll of likely Democratic caucus attendees that showed 32 percent of Democrats said it was more important to pick a candidate who would uphold core party principles but 59 percent preferred a candidate who had broad appeal nationally.

In fact, John Kerry’s nomination in 2004 is almost universally seen as strong evidence about the importance of electability to voters.

After reviewing primary exit polls, Saletan noted in a mid-February 2004 piece that Dean ran even or ahead of Kerry among voters who said that they voted for the candidate they agreed with on the major issues, while Kerry won overwhelmingly among those who said they picked the candidate most likely to defeat President George W. Bush.

Writing immediately after Kerry’s primary victories in Virginia and Tennessee, Saletan argued, “the electability factor wasn’t just big (for Kerry); it was decisive.”

One Republican strategist I spoke with strongly agreed that electability will be an important factor this year.

While he acknowledged that many voters see their preferred candidate as electable, he noted that “GOP voters are united in their strong desire to stop Hillary and end the Obama era,” and argued that Trump’s “buffoonery” is regarded by many voters as “incompatible” with defeating Clinton.

My own view about electability this year? Clearly, truly committed voters are likely to see their preferred candidate as a strong general election contender. But some voters, with weaker preferences, are likely to consider a number of factors before casting their ballots, including who would have the best (and worst) chance of defeating Clinton.

Some Iowa and New Hampshire voters, in particular, now see themselves as political analysts, approaching their contests as detached observers and selecting their preferred candidate strategically.

Nobody is arguing that most primary voters use electability as their primary vote cue, only that it is a factor that could move enough voters to change the outcome of a caucus or primary. That outcome, in turn, could create other expectations or developments. It happened in 2004, after all.

If Trump increasingly looks like a loser in November while others seem able to beat Clinton, some — maybe many — Republican voters will take note. And that could be a serious problem for Trump, especially as the field shrinks.