The Electability Argument: Romney 2012 vs Rubio 2016


It might seem counterintuitive, but losing an election doesn’t mean you weren’t “electable”.

In 2012, one of the main arguments for Mitt Romney as the Republican nominee was that he was the most electable. This point is usually supported by favorability polls and subtle campaign factors like wide, not specific or tribalist, general election appeal.

Romney’s claim of electability in 2012 was based on this data. His favorability varied quite a bit, but was positive from early summer right up to election day. More people liked him than didn’t, in the end. Unfortunately Obama had a comparable favorability rating; he wasn’t the unpopular figure most Republicans assumed he was.

As we all know, Romney lost. He wasn’t as electable as he thought, but he was still the most electable of the Republican candidates at the time. Rick Santorum’s favorability rating was almost never in positive territory. Newt Gingrich was one of the least popular politicians in the country, two weeks after he won the South Carolina primary.

This year the electability argument has come back around again, primarily as a point in favor of Marco Rubio. As a young, well-spoken conservative with minority immigrant parents, a middle-class history, and solid grasp of current cultural trends, his appeal is broader than the Republican party has seen in ages.

His favorability ratings are just as strong, but most importantly, they have room to grow. Though he has a positive rating in every poll (that’s not done by PPP or online), he also has about 1/3 of voters who haven’t formed an opinion about him. That means the more he campaigns, the higher his favorables are likely to go. His unfavorables will likely rise as well, as more Democrats see him as a threat. But for now he has a high floor from which to rise.

An even stronger point in favor of Rubio’s electability are horserace polls. National polls almost 1 year before an election are certainly no predictors of the final outcome, but they can help us gauge trends.

Since November almost every poll measuring a Rubio vs Clinton general election has shown Rubio ahead. That was never true for Romney vs Obama. The only time Romney ever polled ahead of Obama was for a couple days after their first debate.

So while Romney may have been the most electable of the 2012 Republicans, he still couldn’t beat Obama. Against Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio is the only candidate who can beat her nationally today.

The polls could be wrong, of course, and Rubio could still lose, even if he wins the nomination. But if electability is an important factor, and it should be for a national, rational party, then the junior senator from Florida is hard to ignore for Republicans choosing the person to represent them in November.

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