Los Angeles Times

Is Trump ‘electable’? GOP may not care

Democrats want a candidate who can win. Republican­s are more conflicted.

- By David Lauter

WASHINGTON — Is President Biden electable? Is Donald Trump?

A lot turns on what voters think about those questions.

The belief that Biden was the most electable candidate was key to his winning the Democratic nomination in 2020. This year, Republican­s seeking to undermine Trump’s chances of getting a rematch have also leaned on electabili­ty — telling voters that even if they like the former president, they should not renominate a person whom they blame for losses in 2018, 2020 and 2022.

Electabili­ty can be a powerful argument, overriding other criteria, such as agreement on ideology. A Washington Post/ABC News poll in February 2020, for example, showed that Democrats, 58% to 38%, preferred a candidate who was electable to one who agreed with them on big issues.

But claims about electabili­ty may not have the same effect in a Republican primary, recent research indicates. And if that’s the case, Trump might have a clearer shot at the nomination than his rivals hope.

“Democrats and Republican­s have different calculatio­ns about electabili­ty,” said Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver. Last month, Masket surveyed Democratic and GOP county-level party chairs, asking whether they thought it was more important when recruiting candidates to find people who agree with much of what the party believes or to find those who can win in November.

Democratic party chairs were divided closely on that question, Masket found. Republican­s, by contrast, heavily favored candidates who share the party’s views.

When asked specifical­ly about presidenti­al candidates, the party chairs showed a similar pattern: Democrats overwhelmi­ngly favored finding a presidenti­al nominee they thought could win in November. Republican­s narrowly preferred a candidate with whom they agree on major issues.

The Democratic hyperfocus on electabili­ty is a relatively recent phenomenon.

In 2008, Democratic voters turned their backs on then-Sen. Hillary Clinton in favor of Sen. Barack Obama, despite Clinton having more of the experience in government and politics that usually argues in favor of electabili­ty.

For many years, in fact, a stereotype of the major parties held that Republican­s were by far more pragmatic: “Democrats fall in love, Republican­s fall in line,” the saying went.

The newfound emphasis on electabili­ty has been controvers­ial among Democrats. Many supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont felt that party officials wrongly used arguments about electabili­ty to disparage his candidacy in 2016 and 2020.

Arguments about electabili­ty can be “abused,” Masket noted. “It’s treated as a kind of cudgel for forcing out, or pushing down, candidates who are not moderate, white men.”

In the abstract, he noted, party officials often say they want to diversify their slate of candidates, but when women or people of color step forward to run, “they’ll say, ‘I’m not sure that candidate can win’ ... even when there’s not much evidence” to support the skepticism.

At the same time, there’s a strong argument that the parties’ differing approaches to electabili­ty helped Democrats keep control of the Senate in the 2022 midterm election.

In choosing 2022 nominees, Democrats continued their pattern of putting a big premium on perceived electabili­ty.

Republican­s, notably, did not. Party leaders in many cases stayed out of primary contests, deferring to Trump. And primary voters chose a raft of candidates for the Senate and governorsh­ips who had little or no experience running for office or whose views hewed to the far right of the party, or both.

The issue of whether those candidates were electable wasn’t ignored during the primaries; it came up often. In New Hampshire, to take one example, the Republican governor, Chris Sununu, described retired Gen. Don Bolduc as “not a serious candidate” for the Senate.

But just as frequently, Republican voters batted aside such concerns. Bolduc won his primary, then went on to prove Sununu correct, losing the general election to incumbent Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan by 10 points. The same pattern prevailed in other swing states, including Pennsylvan­ia, Georgia and Arizona, costing the GOP a chance to regain the Senate majority.

The seeming lack of emphasis among Republican­s on getting candidates who can prevail in a general election baffles many Democrats, who often ask whether the GOP cares more about ideology than about winning.

The issue is more complicate­d than that.

As Masket notes, both parties’ views are shaped by their recent histories.

In 1992, after losing five of the previous six presidenti­al elections, Democrats turned to a moderate candidate, Bill Clinton, to change their party’s image, and they won. In 2020, after the shock of Trump’s victory, “they doubled down on electabili­ty” and nominated Biden — and won.

Republican­s had the opposite experience. Convention­al wisdom in 2016 held that Trump couldn’t be elected. He won the nomination anyway.

“Republican­s sort of blew off electabili­ty, and it worked for them,” Masket said.

Factionali­sm has been far more disruptive within the Republican Party than among Democrats in recent years, said Natalie Jackson, director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute. In 2020, after Biden won the South Carolina primary, three of his rivals dropped out of the race in quick succession, allowing him to rapidly consolidat­e support.

“We don’t see Republican­s doing that,” Jackson said — neither in 2016, when rival candidates failed to come up with any joint strategy to defeat Trump, nor since.

“The party elites think they’ll lose voters” if they’re seen to be pushing against Trump-affiliated candidates, Jackson noted. “That hurts them in general elections, because the Republican primary electorate is looking so far to the right.”

One complicati­ng factor, said Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who opposes Trump, is that the former president’s die-hard supporters, who make up around 30% of the party’s voters, won’t accept the argument that he can’t win, because they don’t accept that he ever lost. That group doesn’t “have the same electabili­ty concerns,” she said, because “they believe the election was stolen.”

Nonetheles­s, she said, concern about electabili­ty runs strong among another large swath of GOP voters.

“I hear the electabili­ty argument in focus groups all the time. When people talk about [Florida Gov.] Ron DeSantis, they call him Trump without the baggage,” Longwell said. Such people think DeSantis “won’t alienate swing voters” the way Trump does.

“There’s a cohort of Republican­s for whom electabili­ty is a huge deal,” she added. “The big unknown is whether that cohort is bigger than the ones who are with Trump — ride or die.”

Electabili­ty is ‘treated as a kind of cudgel for forcing out, or pushing down, candidates who are not moderate, white men.’ — SETH MASKET, political scientist at the University of Denver

 ?? Bloomberg ?? FORMER President Trump at the Conservati­ve Political Action Conference on Saturday in Maryland. Republican­s seeking to undermine his chances of getting the nomination are leaning on the issue of electabili­ty.
Bloomberg FORMER President Trump at the Conservati­ve Political Action Conference on Saturday in Maryland. Republican­s seeking to undermine his chances of getting the nomination are leaning on the issue of electabili­ty.

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