Election 2012, United States — February 15, 2012 3:40 pm

A Different Look at Electability


A key question Republicans have been asking this primary season has been, “Which candidate has the best chance of defeating Barack Obama in the general election?” So far, Republicans seem to be settling on Mitt Romney as the most electable in this sense. But what exactly does “electable” mean?

For Republicans, electable seems to mean harmless, moderate, and politically adept; that is, while it may be hard for some Republicans to be passionate about Mitt Romney, it is unlikely that other people would strongly dislike him. Other candidates are more attractive to parts of the Republican Party, but they also tend to turn off independent voters en masse—Newt Gingrich has too much baggage, Rick Santorum is too socially conservative, and Ron Paul has too many extreme ideas that alienate too many voters. Or at least this seems to be the reasoning of Republican voters.

But what does electability mean mathematically? In reality, the general election will be decided by a handful of swing states, and it will be the independent voters in those states that determine the winner. In 11 of the 12  states that were hotly contested or saw a party change in the 2008 general election, the candidate that won the majority of the independent vote won the state. The only state in which this was not the case was North Carolina, where there was a significantly larger Democratic turnout that propelled Obama to victory despite McCain’s edge among independents. Thus, the most “electable” candidate is really the candidate that would win over the most independent voters in a few states. Is that candidate Mitt Romney?

Let’s examine some primary exit poll data from a few of these crucial swing states. Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada are good states to analyze for two reasons: they could go to either party in the general election and all four remaining candidates actively campaigned in them. In the first contest in Iowa, Ron Paul won the independent vote overwhelmingly, garnering 43% against Mitt Romney’s 19%. In the second contest in New Hampshire, Paul’s 31% narrowly edged out Romney’s 30%. Finally, in the Nevada caucus, Paul again dominated the independent vote, receiving 46% to Romney’s 28%. In all of these states, Gingrich and Santorum trailed Romney by sizeable margins among independents. Romney did manage to prevail among independents in Florida, a state largely ignored by Paul.

Clearly, Ron Paul has been the most successful at exciting independent voters in swing states. History has shown that this is all that really matters when it comes to winning the general election. Paul’s ability to attract independents may seem odd due to his far right convictions, but perhaps it is precisely his detachment from the stumbling Republican brand that appeals to independent voters. Also, his following among young voters, especially on college campuses, eerily resembles Obama’s success in doing so just four years ago.

According to this data, it appears Ron Paul would be a stronger candidate than many people realize in the general election. Though his relatively meager campaign has thus far focused on smaller states, and it remains unlikely that he will have similar success in upcoming primaries in larger states, he just might be able to woo independent voters nationwide in a general election with more money and media attention. My assessment does have one major assumption: that a Paul nomination would neither scare off a disproportionate number of Republican votes nor significantly hinder Republican voter turnout. While this may seem to be a lofty assumption for a Paul nomination, if Republicans are as truly motivated to beat Obama as they claim they are, then it should be a valid assumption. If Republicans’ main concern is electability, they should look at the numbers. While the numbers may not have dashing hair, a confident poise, and private sector experience, they certainly don’t lie.


Photo Credit: http://www.zimbio.com

  • Paul Schied

    Sorry, Alex, but the reasoning in this article is incredibly poor. You’re making the fundamental mistake of conflating “independents” with “libertarians.” This isn’t entirely your fault, but is symptomatic of a lazy definition of independents perpetuated by the mass media. When people say that “independents decide elections” they aren’t talking about libertarians. “Independents” as defined by the media’s colloquial refers to the large mass of Americans who are mostly uninformed, and mostly at the right fringe of the Democratic Party and the left fringe of the GOP. Libertarians are “independent” in the sense that they aren’t affiliated with either party (at least nominally). They certainly aren’t uninformed. There also aren’t that many of them. Put another way, libertarians aren’t “independents” so much as they are masquerading as independents. It’s heroic– to libertarians– to claim to be independent. It implies a rejection of the status quo, and of the two-party system. But, despite the strained attempts from the media and libertarians alike to draw similarities between the Ron Paul Revolution and Occupy, no self-respecting libertarian would ever vote for a Democrat. The data you’re presenting– that Paul does well with independents– is bogus. It’s skewed by libertarians (realistically going to vote for the Republican or no one at all), identifying as independents.

    You also totally ignore the fact that caucuses favor candidates with a passionate base (whatever the size of that base), and candidates whose platforms and personalities draw clean, easy distinctions with the rest of the pack and sound good in a few lines of impassioned rhetoric. Ron Paul has rabid fans and an impressive grassroots organization that mobilizes extremely well for caucuses. He is, without question, different from everyone else on the stage. He’s built to compete in caucuses. At the risk of eliciting the anger of the internet’s libertarians, I’ll add that libertarianism is a philosophy that looks awesome at first and breaks down upon closer inspection (not unlike its polar opposite). 
    New Hampshire, despite being a primary rather than a caucus, is probably the most libertarian state in the union. There is literally a movement of libertarians who have picked up and moved there from all over the country, because of the state’s “Live Free or Die,” philosophy.

  • Frank Mace

    I basically agree with you Paul, but I think you go too far saying “The data you’re presenting–that Paul does well with independents–is bogus. It’s skewed by libertarians (realistically going to vote for the Republican or no one at all), identifying as independents.” 

    According to the latest Gallup poll, 40% of Americans consider themselves independents. A small percentage of those independents are libertarians, but to say Ron Paul won the independent vote because he won the libertarian vote is a stretch. There aren’t that many libertarians, are there are a lot of independents.

  • Bro Namath

    Great article!  You made very interesting points and Paul clearly missed the point that you were not referring to libertarians in your argument.

  • Alex Boota

    Paul, you raise a good point that anyone who votes in a primary is well educated or passionate about the candidates, including independents.  Libertarians certainly make up a significant group of independent voters in primaries, but I don’t think this alone explains Paul’s success in this election’s primaries.  What could explain the significant increase in his votes compared to the 2008 election?  I don’t think the libertarian movement itself has increased that much since 2008, so I think Paul is finding a new audience with independent voters who are dissatisfied with our political leaders now and respect his authenticity.  You also mention that most independent voters in the general election are uninformed, which, quite honestly, I think even further supports my argument.  Ron Paul has a unique likability factor that attracts many people, but once they actually understand his policy ideas, they realize they don’t agree with him on quite a lot.  Uninformed voters may never reach this realization.  

  • Paul Schied

    I would reply by saying that independents (the non-libertarian, not very politically involved kind) don’t turn out for primaries (especially ones as sad as this one) the way they do for general elections.

    But you’re right. Paul’s crossover appeal is expanding, and his performance has been impressive.

  • Paul Schied

    I would say that at least part of Paul’s success stems from what I think the main source of Santorum’s success is: the ability to avoid attacks. In Santorum’s case, Romney keyed on Gingrich, who he saw as a bigger threat, and left Santorum alone. The same can pretty much be said of Paul. Aside from the racist newsletter thing, the other campaigns (and the media) have been content to let him be. Part of that is tactical: engage with an underdog and you lend him legitimacy. Part of it is that I think the mainstream campaigns (and media) think they could take Paul down on policy relatively easily if he became a real threat.

    You’re right that it’s not just traditional libertarians. The Tea Party and Occupy have pushed the base further right, and made them amendable to Paul’s huge-cuts/Constitution/liberty rhetoric. I also agree that the extraordinarily weak field (and in particular Romney’s particular brand of inauthenticity), make Paul much more appealing to a larger swath of people.

    I’d also say that having the Paul brand around longer on the national stage could explain part of the uptick from 2008.

    The hypothesis that traditional independents’ uninformedness might help Paul is interesting, and might have legs. I’m skeptical though, as there’s nowhere to hide in a general election, and the media and Obama campaign would work hard to educate people on Paul were he to be the nominee.

  • Mhcalum

    Great article with a very refreshing perspective.

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