Who has electability? (part 2 of 2)

In part 1 (please read it first!) I made some general remarks about electability, and laid out several factors that go into it. In this entry, I’ll turn to the individual candidates and try to rate them on each component. I’ll do my darnedest to be objective, but undoubtedly there will be disagreements here. Remember, in this diary, I am concentrating solely on electability concerns; I am not trying to determine who would make the best president. Please keep that in mind when you comment!

One further caveat: since he’s such an outlier, I find it impossible to try to judge Ron Paul on these criteria. Sorry; you’ll have to get your Ron Paul electability analysis somewhere else.

Ability to win over swing Obama voters

Remember that minorities and educated whites swung particularly hard to Obama. We don’t have anyone who would be particularly stronger among minorities than anyone else, but for college-educated whites, things are a bit different. Romney, Gingrich, and Huntsman might fare best at appealing to this crowd.

Digging into more specifics, Romney (for the most part) still has his reputation as a relatively moderate candidate, which helps him with swing voters, but his famous position changes might cause him to suffer. Huntsman also has credibility with moderates but without the drastic shifts – even better. Also, I know most RedStaters don’t like what his ambassadorship says about his level of partisanship, but if there is one truism about swing voters, it’s that they are not strict partisans, and therefore would appreciate the show of cooperation. Huntsman’s soft-spoken style and obvious qualifications won’t hurt with swing voters, either, but he could use more charisma at the same time.

Gingrich is good at making arguments that might sway minds, but has his own baggage. Many centrist voters who remember his speakership will view him as a partisan Republican, with the government shutdown and the Clinton impeachment and his strong rhetoric. (There is an argument that he wasn’t actually that partisan, but we’re talking impressions here.) Perry would be middling here – no severe weaknesses, but he’s definitely seen as quite conservative (and is moving even further that way) and is not particularly practiced at winning over moderates in Texas. Santorum might be OK, if he isn’t perceived as talking about social issues all the time; he seems to be unable to state the conservative case in a way that goes over well with moderates for some reason.  Bachmann is seen as extremely conservative, and likes it that way; she does not fare well in this category.

Keeping McCain voters unified and energized

Let me start by positing that no candidate is great at this particular aspect; if there was a perfect candidate, he would already have lapped the rest of this weak field in the primary polling.

Romney would probably be able to get most everyone behind him, but many will be be unhappy about it. Huntsman would also be able to get a unified party with fewer nose-holders, but he has yet to show that he can get anyone truly excited on his own. Santorum has a similar problem, but we’ll see how well he does in Iowa.

Newt Gingrich wouldn’t lose any particular wing of the party, and would be able to fire up his supporters. However, we know that some Republican voters would be very turned off by his lobbying/ethical/marital issues. We also know that the party establishment, particularly those who served with him in the House, would loathe his candidacy; the media would easily find GOP leaders to snipe at him. This will inevitably take its toll among those Republican voters who pay attention to that sort of thing.

Bachmann will energize ultra-conservatives, but seems unable to avoid turning off GOP moderates.

I suspect Perry would be the best at energizing conservatives; he won’t thrill every single wing of the party (center-right pundits like George Will, and the voters that follow them, will probably be tepid towards him), but he doesn’t raise huge red flags, either, and has proven adept at base-rallying. The biggest issue is that his propensity to forget his policy proposals will cause embarrassment for those in the party who care about intellectual credibility. (Don’t scoff. It’s actually a big problem for the GOP that it is stereotyped as the ‘dumb party’.)

Vulnerability to personal attack and caricature

Gingrich: Large vulnerabilities, on multiple fronts. I won’t go into them since they’re well-documented.  Democrats will portray him as an insider, a creep, a hypocrite.

Romney: The narrative about him has long been planted: a flip-flopping corporate raider with no real core. Not insurmountable, but it’ll be a drag, particularly since there’s plenty of truth to it. There is no doubt Obama and Axelrod have been game-planning for this eventuality for years.

Perry: The insinuations against him will undoubtedly be that he’s a dumb hick – a slicker George W. Bush squared. His Texas mannerisms will reinforce this in a lot of northerners’ subconciouses. The Obama campaign will have to be subtler about using this attack than the ones against Gingrich or Romney, but people like Jon Stewart won’t. Perry already has something of this reputation just among the Republican electorate; if he becomes the nominee and does something like blank in a debate or forget a Supreme Court justice’s name during the general election campaign, it would play right into this and spell disaster.

Bachmann: The Dem playbook will be entitled “Return of Palin”. She’ll be portrayed as an extremist with few credentials.

Santorum: Unclear. Maybe the tactic will be to insinuate that he’s obsessed with, and reactionary on, social (read: sexual) issues? Expect the neologism involving his last name to play a role among young voters.

Huntsman: Undoubtedly the least vulnerable on this front. Democrats can’t promote him as being dumb, unreliable, or a wild-eyed extremist, because then the question gets raised: if so, why the heck did Obama appoint him to be our ambassador to the largest country on earth? They can mock him for being boring, I suppose, or a plutocrat, but that seems to be about it.

Polling Evidence

So far in early polling vs. Obama there has been a fairly clear pattern that Romney has fared best, and Perry, Gingrich, and Bachmann do worse. Santorum and Huntsman get incompletes due to a lack of data.

Prior Campaigns

Numerically, Romney has the most impressive performances, getting 41% (against a local icon) and 53% of the two-party vote in his two campaigns, in a state that has a PVI of D+12. That’s an average of 9% above the Republican baseline of 38%. However, one might argue that Romney circa 2012 is a very different candidate. (He won’t be getting 53% in Massachusetts in 2012, that’s for sure!)

Santorum has 2 narrow statewide victories in a D+2 state, but also has a big loss. Of the three elections, his average performance in the 2-party vote was about 48-49%, so roughly in line with an average Republican, though with a severely downward trajectory.

Huntsman earned 58% and 80% of the two-party vote (average: 69%), but in an R+20 state, so he’s right about at the baseline.

Winner of several state-wide races, Perry garnered 59% of the 2-party vote in 2002, and 56% in 2010; I’m skipping 2006 since it was a messed up 4-way race. However, Texas has an R+10 PVI, and both 2002 and 2010 were good Republican years, so this is actually underperforming somewhat, with a slight downward trajectory. (For comparison, George W. Bush earned 54% (against a strong incumbent) and then 68%, for an average of 61%.)

Bachmann: 54%, 52%, 57% of the two-party vote in an R+7 district is below-average. In addition, all three elections featured a significant independent candidate, so her highest true vote percentage is 52.5%.

Gingrich: Incomplete. Never ran statewide and I don’t know how to find PVIs for his districts back in the 80’s and 90’s, but Gingrich post-speakership is a very different candidate anyhow.

Candidate Discipline

Romney, Huntsman, and Santorum are pretty good as far as this goes. Perry has had several missteps (mostly due to a lack of recall more than a lack of discipline) but has gotten better recently. Bachmann is more of a loose cannon and we’ve already seen Gingrich forced to walk back several statements of his.

Debating Skill

Gingrich comes out on top here, with his quick wit, obvious command of facts, and ability to tie things together. Most of the rest seem decent, particularly Romney. Perry is probably weakest in this category, although he’s improving. All of our candidates will be more practiced than Obama by the time this is over.


Romney and Perry have proven their abilities in this area already. The rest of the field had been languishing but if/when one of them rises in the polls, the money will inevitably come in, and the party apparatus will kick in, so I don’t think anyone is particularly weak in this area.  If I had to guess, I’d say Huntsman and Gingrich would be the best of the remaining four at schmoozing with the big money donors.

Crisis Management

I have my thoughts, but they’re much too subjective to bother writing down in this diary entry. I don’t think anybody truly knows who would be best here until we actually see them in action.

Swing States

The obvious one is Santorum in Pennsylvania, although the early polling hasn’t shown a home state boost for him; it doesn’t help that he got routed in his last election there. Bachmann is from Minnesota but is not at all popular statewide. Romney has his ties to Michigan, but those are pretty loose. So I’d say nobody really stands out.

Where does this leave us?


Here’s how I’d summarize the candidates through the electability prism:

Michele Bachmann seems like she would have the weakest chance against Barack Obama. Her only strength is in whipping up the conservative base (granted, she does that very well). Neither her staunchly right-wing image nor her scant record of accomplishment give swing voters any reason to vote for her, unless there’s a major Obama administration scandal or economic collapse between now and election day. The evidence so far bears this out, as Obama consistently romps in polling against her.

Newt Gingrich’s greatest electoral strength is that he is the best at personally stating the case against the Obama record in debates. However, this is not the primary method that campaigns use to attack the opponent: candidates usually do not appear in attack ads (other than to state “I approved this message”) for a reason. In addition, Gingrich has some severe drawbacks: he would not have a unified party (since a significant portion of the establishment does not like him personally at all); he is undisciplined as a candidate, due to his propensity to share every idea that comes through his head; he is viewed as a partisan figure by many swing voters; and he has a significant amount of personal and ethical baggage. All of this is reflected in the fact that he would start out with a significant deficit in the polls.

Rick Perry shot to the top of the Republican polling when he first announced. He has a strong record in Texas he can be proud of, and an unblemished electoral record as well, to the point where I think he pretty clearly has a better shot of winning than Gingrich or Bachmann. However, looking more closely at his electoral record reveals that he underperformed the Texas Republican baseline, even in strong GOP years, and was not very effective at reaching out to moderates and swing voters (he got a very strong moderate 3rd party challenge in 2006, and another one, albeit less strong, in 2010, and he even encountered a moderate primary challenge from Kay Bailey Hutchison). He usually explicitly ran from the right, and is running even further to the right in 2012. Just judging from this data, one can conclude that he’d easily be able to rally the core conservative base, but winning swing voters nationwide won’t be something he does well.

In addition, we should examine why he lost his lead in the GOP primary, to the point where he now has  negative favorables even among Republican voters. Pretty clearly, this had to do with his series of gaffes in which he blanked on things he ought to have remembered, along with his underwhelming ability to articulate his thoughts. The impression that Perry gave a lot of Republicans (and everyone else paying attention) was that he’s not intellectually capable enough to be president. Please note that I think that this is false. However, it’s the image that Perry has unfortunately created for himself, and it will handicap him for quite some time, particularly in contrast with Obama, who still has his media-airbrushed image of intelligence mostly intact. (Yes, I realize it is a bit of a facade – but again, we’re talking images.) Perry’s rhetorical style and accent don’t really help matters. He will have a lot of work to do if he is to make up ground among the college-educated white voters that swung to Obama in 2008, especially in northern states (he’d start at a large disadvantage in the polling), and any fresh gaffe in the fall of 2012 would likely doom him in a way it wouldn’t doom others. Unfortunately, he’s a distinct underdog, in my estimation.

Mitt Romney’s case for electability starts with the fact that he runs well ahead of the previous three candidates when matched up against Obama. That’s not nothing. He also has the most impressive electoral results. However, the Mitt Romney that won in Massachusetts is long gone: it is hard to see how he has any special appeal to centrists any longer, given his transparent shifts rightward, other than the fact that he’s obviously qualified for the job. Nor does he rouse any particular passions on the part of conservatives, for the same reason. The Obama campaign is fully prepared to exploit his vulnerabilities on inauthenticity and his “Wall Street” background (yes, I realize that Bain Capital is very different from the banking industry, and that Newt Gingrich was absolutely wrong to try to attack on that, but most people do not). Given these weaknesses, I can’t see Romney being able to grow much beyond his current numbers vs. Obama, which means their matchup won’t be much better than a brutal slog of a toss-up all the way to election day.

For me, Rick Santorum is a hard candidate to evaluate. There isn’t much in the way of polling of the Santorum vs. Obama race, with the exception of Pennsylvania where he performs approximately the same as Romney, maybe a couple points worse. His two state-wide wins in Pennsylvania are great, but his huge loss cancels them out. He does have a fairly right-wing image, and the fact that he talks more than usual about social issues (sometimes in blunt terms that give the MSM the vapors) might tend to exacerbate this, as the media, for whatever reason, tends to equate social conservatism as somehow less “mainstream” than economic conservatism. (Yes, this is BS, but you know how the media can get…) In addition, his attention to social issues might cause him to seem a bit out of step with the economic worries of the times, although he does connect the two fairly well. His major strength is that what you see is what you get with him – with the exception of a minor flap regarding his residence and kids’ schooling, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of particular vulnerabilities for Obama to attack here. He’s not the most inspiring figure, and might even be a little bit dour at times, but it seems to me Obama will pretty much have to stick to the issues and his record when facing him, which in itself is a big win for us. What does this all add up to? Maybe a decent chance? I suspect so, but I must admit that my estimation of him is much more speculative than the others.

This brings me to Jon Huntsman. I’ve been defending him a bit on RedState, but I will admit that he wouldn’t be my first choice if I were choosing the president. That said, I do think he is the most electable candidate that we have. There are really two big reasons for this:

1) He’s well-equipped to win swing voters.

Both stylistically and in terms of his personal history, he comes across as less partisan than usual.  He’s clearly qualified and competent. All of these qualities, which are largely independent of his actual policy positions, are ones that swing voters value, and as I read comments on other blogs (eg, Ross Douthat’s and Rod Dreher’s), I’ve seen ample evidence that he has already begun to attract such support. (I’m not alone in this: see EE’s statements about Huntsman here.  We can also look at his 80% win in 2008 as evidence that he’s able to appeal broadly.) Will some of it fade away once the Obama machine gets going? Probably. But it’s vastly easier to start with a positive impression among swing voters and then try to keep them, than it is to start out with a negative impression and try to win them.

2) He’s inoculated from a lot of potential attacks.

Pretty much all of the insinuations about personality are out, due to his ambassadorship.  His record as governor is pretty much unassailable by Obama. (As a quick comparison, Perry has a good record, too, but since Texas is a poorer state there are a lot more bad statistics that can be cherry-picked.) Even the knocks on his wealthy status can be deflected by noting that his business experience is not in the much-demonized financial sector, and that he has a plan that ends the Too Big To Fail problem, unlike
Obama.  Democrats would be left with just the standard policy playbook.

What are Huntsman’s electoral downsides? He doesn’t have a great relationship with the conservative base right now. I suspect this will change as more conservatives take a good look at his platform. If it doesn’t, he won’t get the nomination anyway, so it’s not worth worrying about too much. It’s doubtful that he’d ever get the base extremely fired up for him, but if enough attack ads get the base fired up against Obama, that’s almost as good.  Another concern is that we don’t yet know how well he’d do parrying attacks, since nobody has bothered to criticize his proposals yet, but this is another thing we’ll learn about should he gain viability in the primaries. The last electoral knock on him that I can think of is that he’s not charismatic. This is quite true: stylistically, I view Huntsman as akin to George H. W. Bush* – similar resumes, more wonkish than populist or ideological, steady and respected but not beloved. My feeling is that after 4 years of a not-particularly-successful celebrity president, most Americans are ready for someone kind of boring. Don’t you think a low-drama competence would sound nice right about now?

(*: Before you object that GHWB lost: he had Ross Perot spoiling things, and a recession that was pinned on him. If it were a Democratic recession instead, and he was going up against Clinton one-on-one, I think he wins pretty comfortably despite Clinton’s decided charisma advantage. And before you object that GHWB compromised with Democrats and raised taxes, note that I’m not trying to make a policy comparison here. I think Huntsman is more conservative than GHWB, and would probably have a GOP congress to boot.)

Out of all the candidates, I think Huntsman is the only one that has a decent shot at breaking through the polarization and winning with more than 51%. If conservatives are able to get over the initial snub that he gave them and allow him a chance to patch things up with them, he would be a nominee with a platform that’s at least acceptable to conservatives who can nevertheless be appealing to moderate voters and be immune from counterattack – that’s a good recipe for a victory.