Sunday, September 11, 2011

Electability, the 2012 GOP Primary, and Authenticity?

In Thursday's New York Times, Nate Silver discusses two fundamental qualities voters look for when evaluating candidates in a presidential primary contest: (1) electability and (2) a candidate who will promote an agreeable (in this case conservative Republican) policy agenda.

Often times, it's electability that matters most to primary voters (aka the party faithful) because they seek a candidate who can ultimately win in a general election. As Silver notes, Perry does well in promoting a conservative agenda but is lacking when it comes to perceptions of electability. Romney on the other hand may not appeal to the policy preferences of more conservative Republican voters but he does give off an air of electability when it comes time to think about the general election.

The importance of electability was especially evident during the 2004 Democratic primary. In the early days of the primary I worked with a team of pollsters hired by a candidate who was promoting a very credible, actionable, on-point, Democratic policy agenda. The problem was with the candidate's perceived electability. As the Iowa Caucus results would quickly show, John Kerry was perceived by voters to be the most electable candidate in a general election match-up with President George W. Bush. Candidates like Dick Gephardt, John Edwards, and especially Howard Dean were seen as slightly less electable but more centrally aligned with the policy priorities of Democratic primary voters.

In the end, Kerry secured the nomination primarily because he was seen as the candidate who was mostly likely to beat Bush in November.

Both Kerry and now Mitt Romney suffer from problems of authenticity, or the perception that they're not being "real" or true enough to what they say they really are.

As the New York Times points out, Jon Huntsman also suffers from an authenticity problem among Republican voters who don't see him as conservative enough for their tastes. For Huntsman, it's a real problem of perception and of not being able to promote an agreeable policy agenda that will appease 2012 GOP voters. Interestingly enough, Huntsman would actually be quite "electable" given a head-to-head match-up with Barack Obama, but without a truly Republican policy agenda, he'll never make it out of the early primary contests with much, if any, partisan support.

With Republican voters so fed up with the current administration, look for electability and even perceptions of authenticity to drive the 2012 primary contests. While a conservative policy agenda will be important to the Republican party faithful, it may take a backseat to the desire to win in November 2012.

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