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.
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