Presidential primaries are sometimes likened to dating; candidates try to woo voters, courting them, promising them the world, and then asking for their hand.
In the last two presidential elections, Republicans have dated around, seeing everyone from Rudy Giuliani to Herman Cain. But after a few summer flings, they’ve always landed on the Very Nice And Responsible Choice.
So after having their hearts broken by John McCain and Mitt Romney, two candidates who promised “electability” and came up short, Republican primary voters may be ready to elope with the one their parents approve of least: Donald Trump.
Or if not Trump, Ben Carson or Ted Cruz, two other candidates who are now sitting near the top of the GOP field but who political prognosticators expect would perform considerably less well against the Democratic nominee next November.
Yes, summer is often a silly time in a Republican primary, and the eventual nominees—who seem inevitable in hindsight—all had scares and moments buried in the pack.
In August 2007, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson sat atop the GOP field; John McCain polled at a measly 7 percent. While Mitt Romney didn’t have as terrible a summer in 2011, he was drowned out by Rick Perry for much of August and September and would later have to contend with a carousel of rising and falling opponents on his way to the nomination.
But the as far as summer flings go, the Summer of Trump takes the cake.
That’s because, four years ago, electability really mattered to Republicans. Despite the rotating cast of characters on the upswing in the GOP race in 2011, Republican voters told Gallup that they preferred “someone who can beat Obama” (50 percent) to “a candidate who agrees” with them on most issues (46 percent). Even more stunning, the Gallup data showed it was conservatives who were more focused on electability than were moderate and liberal Republicans (though presumably those moderates felt electability and their own views went hand in hand).
Today, it isn’t clear that electability matters all that much, or rather, that the definition of “electability” has changed.
First, fewer voters today suggest that a candidate’s ability to defeat the Democratic nominee is a major factor: Only 13 percent told the latest Fox News poll that they thought the ability to win in November 2016 was the most important factor in their choice. Strong leadership (29 percent) and conservative values (20 percent) topped the list. (Though, memo to Ted Cruz, “Would shake things up in Washington” also came in at only 13 percent.)
No doubt this is because, after having heard electability arguments in the last two presidential elections, Republicans have only seen “electable” candidates not get elected.
Furthermore, though Hillary Clinton enjoys huge disdain from Republicans, perhaps Republicans are slightly less terrified by the specter of a Hillary Clinton presidency and don’t view losing to her as being catastrophic—a theory that seems crazy until you see that, in late 2014, polling showed Republicans liked her very slightly more than Barack Obama.
That’s not the most bizarre explanation for the data. No, it is possible instead that the email scandals and her lackluster performance on the campaign trail have made her seem more vulnerable. Republicans may have needed an “electable” candidate to beat the formidable political talent of Barack Obama, but to take on Hillary Clinton, maybe they think an out-there reality TV star and tabloid fixture could actually do the trick.
The idea that Donald Trump actually is viewed as electable will strike most political pundits as insane. Yet “electability” may not only matter less—it may have also been radically redefined after the respectable, responsible candidates failed to get the job done.
The most recent CNN poll asked Republicans to say which candidate best represented their values. Atop the pack? Ben Carson at 14 percent, followed by Donald Trump at 12 percent, Mike Huckabee at 11 percent and Ted Cruz at 10 percent.
But on the question of who “has the best chance of winning in the general election?” Trump actually increases to 22 percent, while Carson, Cruz, and Huckabee all fall out of the top tier, replaced by Jeb Bush (16 percent), Scott Walker (11 percent), and Marco Rubio (9 percent). Republican voters may be aware of Trump’s apostasy on things like single-payer health care yet still think he’s the guy with the big, terrific, huge plan to take out Hillary Clinton next year.
So what should make Republican leaders nervous isn’t that voters are experimenting with a rebellious choice: It might be that they also genuinely think he’s electable, too.
Polls confirm that, at the moment, candidates like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush fare well against Hillary Clinton in matchups. But with the latest Fox News poll showing Trump down only five points to Clinton, these Trump-is-electable folks couldn’t possibly be right, could they?
Against a weakened Hillary Clinton, perhaps Republicans think just about anyone is electable… even Donald Trump.