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Mellman on the IA Electability Myth

Topics: Iowa

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman has another must read in The Hill out this morning. Today's column reviews "three myths" regarding the Iowa caucuses. As the pollster for John Kerry's surprising, come-from-behind Iowa victory in 2004, ought to know (Mellman is not aligned with a campaign in 2008).

His first myth:

Iowans vote electability. Almost everyone says it, but if this myth were a reality, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani would be knocking 'em dead in Des Moines and across the state. In the latest Iowa Poll, 42 percent of Democrats thought Clinton the most electable, compared to 23 percent for Edwards and 14 percent for Obama. Yet, Clinton garners just 29 percent of the vote with Edwards and Obama close behind at 23 and 22 percent respectively. Clinton under-polls her electability quotient by 13 points, while Obama over-polls his by 8.

I have had the opportunity to talk to a lot of reporters over the last month or so, and this topic comes up often. I agree with Mellman here, only I would take it further: The whole concept of "electability" means something different to ordinary voters than it does to those of us who follow politics obsessively. To the political-junkie-elite, voting on "electability" describes the impulse to pass on a candidate that one prefers for their qualifications or ideology, choosing a more "electable" candidate instead.

However, ask ordinary voters which candidate is most "electable" or stands the best chance of beating the Republican in the general election (something I did often in focus groups for clients), and they typically choose the candidate with the most political experience or the one that seems to be leading or "doing well" in campaign coverage. Thus, Clinton's current standing as the most electable candidate, both in Iowa and nationally, comes as little surprise.

Actually, the Des Moines Register/Selzer poll included even better evidence that proves Mellman's point. At the end of their survey, they asked this question separately of both likely Democratic and likely Republican caucus goers:

Sometimes people decide to support the candidate they think is most electable, even if they think there is another candidate who would make a better president. If you were assured that your party would win the November 2008 election, no matter who the candidate was - so that you were free to vote for the person you truly thought would be the best president - for whom would you vote?

If Iowans preferred an "electable" candidate rather than the one "who would make a better president," we would expect to see a big difference between their current vote preference and the candidate named on this follow-up question. But for the Democrats (as the table below shows), the results are virtually identical. The only candidate who seems to suffer "electability" defections is Dennis Kucinich, who gets only 1% of the vote despite convincing 4% of Iowa Democrats that he would be the best president.

10-24%20register%20best%20president.png

The results are even more counterintuitive for the Republicans. As Mellman noted, nearly a third of likely Republican caucus goers (32%) consider Giuliani most "electable." Yet the percentage that supports Giuliani (11%) is actually lower than the percentage that says he would make the best president (14%). Mitt Romney is the current choice of 29% of Iowa Republicans, yet only 20% consider Romney the best potential president. If anything these results suggest that Romney may still be more vulnerable in Iowa than the current standings would have you believe.

Mellman's observations about two other myths are - that Iowa is all about organization and that turnout is everything - are interesting. Go read it all.

 

Comments

Could the Republicans be voting on electability for purposes of the nomination instead of the general election? E.g., a Republican who might consider Giuliani the best overall candidate but think he'd never get the Republican nomination, and so support someone else?

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ronbo:

With all of Giuliani's baggage, especially in Iowa, I wouldn't be surprised if some voters believed that, "Yeah, he'd probably make a good president, and he might even win. I just hope I don't have to vote for him." I think that sentiment might account for some of what you found.

BTW, wouldn't you love to be behind the glass at a well-run Republican focus group in Iowa?

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