Four years ago, the Democratic presidential primary was dominated by a concept nobody could clearly define but everyone could tell you was important: “electability.” Despite the challenges of measuring this amorphous trait, perceptions about who would have the best chance of winning the general election tended to boost older white male candidates at the expense of women and people of color. But regardless of whether you could quantify “electability,” Democrats clearly cared a great deal about it: Poll after poll found that more Democrats cared about nominating a candidate who could defeat then-President Donald Trump than one whom they agreed with on most issues.
Today, Republicans find themselves in an analogous position to Democrats’ four years ago: facing an open nomination battle to take on an incumbent president they strongly dislike. But they aren’t necessarily repeating Democrats’ 2020 example. Limited polling suggests that GOP voters may care more about ideological purity than electability when considering the Republican field of presidential contenders. This could be frustrating news for some GOP leaders and donors who want the party to move on from Trump.
Still, the early polling on how much Republicans are prioritizing electability isn’t entirely straightforward, thanks in part to differences in how pollsters word such questions. And even if Republicans do put a greater value on choosing a candidate with whom they agree on most issues rather than one who has a better shot of defeating President Biden, those preferences are not set in stone. The rise and fall of candidates and the twists and turns of the primary season could affect voter priorities. Moreover, although most polls ask voters to choose between two answers, Republicans may believe they can have both ideological purity and electability, since many believe that Trump is the party’s most electable candidate.
A March poll from SSRS/CNN provided a strong early signal that Republicans are thinking more about candidates’ views than who is best positioned to defeat Biden. Among Republican registered voters,1 58 percent viewed it as more important for their party to pick a nominee “who shares your positions on major issues” while 42 percent prioritized choosing a nominee “with a strong chance of beating” Biden. SSRS/CNN asked Democratic voters2 the same question nine times during the 2020 election cycle, and in every survey more Democrats prioritized picking a nominee who could defeat Trump than one whom they agreed with on major issues.
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This isn’t the only poll that has shown a Republican preference for ideological purity over electability, either. In a late March poll by Beacon Research/Shaw & Company Research on behalf of Fox News, 72 percent of Republican registered voters said a candidate’s views on the issues were more important than their chances of winning the general election, while just 17 percent said the opposite. Similarly, two surveys by YouGov/The Economist in April and May each found 63 percent of Republican adults prioritized backing a candidate they agreed with on the issues, while fewer than 30 percent prioritized the candidate’s general-election chances.3 And an April poll from the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs found likely GOP primary voters in Georgia felt it was more important to nominate a candidate who shared their views on key issues than choosing one with a strong chance of defeating Biden, 46 percent to 34 percent, although a meaningful chunk (18 percent) volunteered to the pollster that they valued them equally.
However, at least one survey has found Republicans cared more about electability than ideological purity. An April poll by Fabrizio, Lee & Associates/Impact Research for The Wall Street Journal found 51 percent of likely GOP primary voters preferred a more electable candidate, while 44 percent preferred someone who shared the voters’ values and views on most issues. This result may not align with other recent survey data because of how the pollsters worded the question, as it included the caveat that the more ideologically aligned candidate “would have a tougher time winning in the general election.” In a way, this wording gave respondents a truer trade-off — issues and values versus electability — compared with the wording used by other pollsters that we’ve looked at. But in this case, slightly more Republicans preferred electability.
There’s no “right” way to ask this sort of question, but how it’s framed can cue voters with information that could encourage them to adopt one position or another. Take Gallup’s polling of Republicans from the 2012 cycle, the last time a Democratic president (Barack Obama) sought reelection. A December 2011 survey by Gallup/USA Today found 62 percent of Republicans and independents who leaned Republican preferred a candidate who agreed with them on the issues but didn’t have the best chance of winning the general election. However, when Gallup/USA Today asked a form of this question in which the electability option specifically mentioned “beating Obama” at various other times in 2011, the share of Republicans who preferred a candidate with the best chance of winning slightly exceeded the share who valued issue agreement more.
The changing contours of the campaign could also shift voters’ thoughts on electability. We saw it in 2020: While Democrats routinely prioritized electability in SSRS/CNN’s polling, the extent of that preference varied over time. For instance, it’s probably not a coincidence that Democrats’ preference for an electable candidate peaked in a survey taken in March 2020, right after Biden’s victories on Super Tuesday made him the party’s likely nominee. After all, a big part of Biden’s appeal was the notion that he was best positioned to defeat Trump.
Fact is, a candidate’s rise could influence what voters say they want, turning the causation arrow around. Consider a different poll question the Pew Research Center asked during the 2016 cycle. In March 2015, 57 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters said they felt it was more important for a candidate to have experience and a proven record than new ideas and a different approach, while 36 percent said the reverse. Six months later, those numbers had more than flipped, to 65 percent preferring new ideas and a different approach versus just 29 percent who wanted experience and a proven record. What happened? Trump — a political outsider if there ever was one — came down an escalator that June and surged in GOP primary polls. This time around, perhaps Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will have a sterling debate performance later this year and rise in the polls, leading GOP voters to start telling pollsters that they prioritize electability — one of DeSantis’s selling points as a candidate.
Of course, this brings up another complicating factor in interpreting questions about electability: What if Republicans don’t feel they have to choose? The March SSRS/CNN poll found more than 60 percent of Republicans still thought that Biden didn’t win fairly in 2020. If a majority of the GOP doesn’t believe Trump lost fair and square, does the primary electorate actually view him as “unelectable”? Not to mention, Republican voters ignored party leaders’ concerns about Trump’s electability in 2016 to nominate Trump, and he went on to win the presidency anyway.
In that vein, some recent polling suggests Republicans may view Trump, not DeSantis, as the most electable candidate. Monmouth University’s latest poll found that 45 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters said Trump was “definitely” the strongest candidate to beat Biden, while another 18 percent said he was “probably” the strongest choice. Only 32 percent thought a different candidate would definitely or probably be the best bet against Biden. The pollster also noted that there’s something of a chicken-and-egg problem regarding electability because its past polling had found that, if voters supported a candidate because of issues or values, they also often thought that candidate was the most electable choice.
As we get more polling data on this subject, it may become easier to suss out what Republicans think about electability in the 2024 cycle. So far, it appears they may value ideological purity over nominating an electable candidate. Whether that changes could affect a candidate’s chances — but a candidate’s rise or fall could also influence how much voters say they care about electability. Although polls can present these questions as a dichotomous choice, voters don’t necessarily think about electability in such a black-and-white way.