Does Electability Matter?

I recently came across a very interesting post on YouGov, a polling data site, that analyzed whether electability makes a difference in Republican voters’ candidate preferences. Political scientists usually agree that in a two party system, there’s a sophisticated pattern of strategic decision-making that happens when people vote, whether consciously or unconsciously. The prevailing idea is that when the winner only needs to earn the most votes, people don’t want to “waste” their votes on a sure loser. In the YouGov piece, John Sides and Alex Lundry tested this hypothesis with the prominent Republican candidates running in the 2012 Presidential race to see whether hearing potential chances of winning would make voters more likely to change their preferences. The results were interesting, although not surprising.

Sides and Lundry took a small sample group and asked a baseline question to gauge the who the subjects supported. Some were then given predictions of all eight the candidates’ chances of winning the primary, others received similar data about the general election, and some received both. After being presented the new information, they were asked the first question again.

In every scenario, seeing the data about who was likely to win caused the subjects to change their minds about which candidate they would support. But almost 40% of people who saw general election predictions changed their selection, compared to just 28% of the people who saw just predicted primary results. Here’s a graph illustrating the shift:

Graph by John Sides and Alex Lundry for YouGov

Gingrich and Romney are the only two candidates who gain support. Support for all of the other candidates drops, Perry’s the most. This makes logical sense if Republicans want to pick a candidate who has a chance of winning. But what’s most interesting is who people turned to when they change their mind. Gingrich’s support base only increased by about three points, but Romney sees a dramatic surge, especially when voters looked at possible general election results.

What does that mean? First of all, it’s pretty clear that Republican voters can easily be convinced to change their minds about a candidate. Even a significant proportion of people who initially stated they didn’t have a candidate preference changed their minds when presented with information about possible election outcomes.

Secondly, if I were on Mitt Romney’s staff, I would tell him to stop playing games and start hammering home his chances against Barack Obama. New Hampshire, Iowa, and other early primary states will be crucial for both Romney and Gingrich. If Romney can do well there, he can easily capitalize on the momentum to knock Gingrich off the top of the heap.

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Political hack. Word nerd. Stays crispy in milk. Oxford Comma user. Blogger since 2001.

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