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Electability a Primary Liability for Perry

I’ve developed a habit — it’s probably a bad habit — of assigning letter grades to the Republican candidates based on my initial reaction to their performance in debates. After Wednesday night’s debate in Simi Valley, I gave Rick Perry a B-minus, meaning an average performance. Meanwhile, I gave Mitt Romney, his primary rival for the Republican nomination, a higher grade of A-minus.

The grades are based on neither style nor substance per se, but instead mostly on strategy: how much each candidate did to improve his chances of winning the nomination. Newt Gingrich, for example, got in some good one-liners and seemed more poised than he had in past debates. But in deliberately avoiding contrasts between himself and the other candidates, he did little to give Republican voters a reason to pick him — something he needs to do, since he’s standing at about 4 percent in the polls.

As for Mr. Perry, I thought he had a very good opening sequence, surprising Mr. Romney by going on offense and critiquing his job creation record in Massachusetts — including a crowd-pleasing remark that compared Mr. Romney unfavorably with former Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis.

But he got weaker as the night went along. Some of Mr. Perry’s odder moments — like his invocation of Galileo Galilei in response to a question about climate change — are liable to make for a funny segment on The Daily Show and then be forgotten about. What was more noteworthy was Mr. Perry’s response to a question about Social Security, where he doubled-down on rhetoric from his book and characterized the program as a “Ponzi scheme.”

This particular remark is not likely to sit exceptionally well even with Republicans, conservative though they may be. A CNN poll published last month found 57 percent of Republicans opposed to major changes in Social Security and Medicare.

Perhaps for the Republicans who will turn out in the primaries — who tend to be more conservative than Republicans as a whole — the numbers are closer to even, or a little bit in Mr. Perry’s favor. I would argue that Mr. Perry’s remarks were nevertheless unwise.

The reason is that this will play into concerns about his appeal to general election voters. (With good reason: some 62 percent of independents, and 69 percent of moderates, are opposed to reforms on the scale that Mr. Perry has advocated, according to the CNN poll.)

Electability does matter to primary voters. Historically, parties have rarely nominated the most ideologically extreme candidates in their field. Yes, George McGovern and Barry Goldwater won — but they have been more the exceptions than the rule as compared with a host of others (Howard Dean, Pat Robertson, Jesse Jackson, Pat Buchanan, Jerry Brown) who lost.

In fact, Mr. Perry’s lead in the polls right now is based in part on perceptions that he is electable. The recent Washington Post / ABC News poll posed an interesting set of questions to Republican voters — asking them who they thought was closest to them on the issues, and who they thought was most able to defeat President Obama, in addition to their first overall choice.

Mr. Perry led the Republican field on each of the measures. But his lead was actually larger on the electability question: 30 percent of Republican voters said they thought he had the best chance of defeating Mr. Obama, versus 20 percent for Mr. Romney. By contrast, Mr. Perry held a smaller, 6-point lead over Mr. Romney on the question of his issue positioning.

This perception stands in contrast to the views of Republican elites, about 70 percent of whom think that Mr. Romney is the more electable nominee, according to a survey conducted by the National Journal.

It also stands in contrast to head-to-head polls matching Mr. Perry and Mr. Romney against Mr. Obama. Since Aug. 1, nine polling firms have tested both Mr. Perry and Mr. Romney against the president, and eight of them have found Mr. Romney doing a little stronger. On average, he has trailed Mr. Obama by just one point in these polls, versus a 5 percent deficit for Mr. Perry.

I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on these head-to-head polls — but my research (which we’ll be publishing in more detail in a separate article) suggests that the ideological positioning of the candidates does affect general election performance, even after accounting for factors like the performance of the economy and a president’s approval ratings, and might plausibly make several percentage points worth of difference.

But back to the primaries: voters and parties are looking to calibrate these two objectives — picking a candidate who has a good shot at winning, and picking one who can be counted upon to advance their agenda. In a reasonably competitive field, failing either test will usually be disqualifying.

What Republican voters may perceive to be “electable” and what swing voters think may be two different things. Still, you can see that people like Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin perform badly according to this test even among Republicans, according to the Washington Post poll, and it seems to be limiting their upside potential.

Mr. Perry has so far avoided this fate. But if perceptions about electability fade, so will his overall numbers. Regression analysis of the Washington Post poll suggests that Republicans are weighing these two factors — electability and issue positioning — about equally. If Mr. Romney, rather than Mr. Perry, led on the electability question, that could be enough to push him past Mr. Perry even if Mr. Perry is a little closer to Republican voters on the issues.

To be sure, it can be tricky to invoke concerns about your rival’s electability. You may, in some cases, implicitly (or even explicitly) be abandoning goals that your party holds dear. Such criticism can run the risk of harming the opponent’s brand should he win the nomination, and therefore may be met with limited tolerance from party elites. And such remarks can have an eat-your-spinach tone to them, reading better on paper than they sound in the room.

Mr. Perry’s problems on Wednesday night, however, were of his own making: he was strong when engaging the other candidates, but weak on handling questions from the moderators. Unless he develops a stronger defense of his positions on Social Security, he will make Mr. Romney’s job much easier.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.