Monday, April 25, 2011

Match-Up Polls vs. Perceived Electability

As explained in the Profiles section, one of the three attributes primary voters look for in a candidate is "perceived electability." Particularly in the early primaries, voters are strategic and want to select a candidate who can win.

"Electability" contains a number of ingredients: A candidate ought to be mainstream for his Party, experienced, reasonably articulate, free of scandal, and a "traditional" kind of candidate. Sometimes the voters outthink themselves by selecting a candidate like John McCain or Bob Dole: Traditional politicians who aren't "extreme" but whose inability to energize the Party's base leaves them less able to win. Perceived electability does not always translate into the ability to actually win the election.

How does perceived electability compare to the polls pitting Obama against hypothetical Republican nominees? (Match-up polls should not be confused with national primary polls, which Elephant Watcher previously discussed.)

Match-up polls are generally useless when they pit Obama against a relatively unknown candidate like Pawlenty or Cain, since voters have not yet formed an opinion on those candidates. They do yield interesting results when they involve well-known candidates like Palin, Huckabee, and Romney.

A divide is revealed here: Huckabee and Romney each run a few points ahead or behind Obama. Palin always trails Obama by double-digits, sometimes by 15 points or more. It's clear why Palin is perceived to be unelectable: Voters know Obama; they know Palin. Barring a radical transformation on Palin's part, there is no reason to think Palin will be able to improve her numbers by such a great amount and defeat Obama. Palin's supporters are enthusiastic, but history shows early primary voters will not choose someone unless they think he can win. Elephant Watcher currently gives Palin a 2% chance of winning the Republican nomination.

As mentioned, voters may be mistaken about a candidate's actual ability to win elections. Romney is a traditional politician and performs well in polls against Obama, but would he actually run well? Would lack of enthusiasm or a third party Tea Party candidate doom his chances?

Huckabee is another interesting case. In match-up polls, he runs about as well against Obama (or slightly better than) Romney. Yet he has not convinced voters that he is highly electable, only that he is moderately electable. He has not been blessed by the establishment, and he is sometimes pigeonholed as just a preacher or TV show host. If Huckabee is able to persuade voters that he is as electable as the polls say, Romney will need to find another means of getting an edge over him.