Rudy’s ‘winnability’ gamble

Rudy Giuliani and his supporters are hoping that with Hillary Clinton as the odds- on favorite for the Democratic nomination, Republicans will pay more attention than usual to the question of which of the possible Republican nominees may have the best chance of denying her the White House.   They hope Republicans will end up convinced that Rudy would be stronger than the others.

Thus, when one encounters a rabid Giuliani supporter these days, the argument goes something like this: “Only Rudy can beat Hillary, and, therefore, any Republican who wants to win has to support the man.” Some will go further and suggest that if you don’t support Rudy it really means you don’t care much or enough about retaining the White House or, more importantly, denying it to Mrs. Clinton.

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The argument that only Rudy can win is meant to negate questions or concerns about his positions on major issues or whether he would make the sort of president Republicans will be proud of once he actually gets to the White House. It’s a gamble, but one Rudy’s supporters must think worth taking in spite of the obstinate historical tendency of primary voters to ignore what is called “winnability” in selecting a party nominee.

It was the argument used by GOP establishmentarians who opposed Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in 1980, and is ordinarily trotted out in favor of more “pragmatic” or “moderate” candidates who are out of step with their party base. Typically, one hears such a candidate’s supporters and media analysts suggesting that “he would undoubtedly be the strongest general election candidate the party could choose, but he probably cannot be nominated.” Republicans and Democrats alike have heard the argument repeated in one form or another so often that most know it by heart.

 The essential problem with the argument is that primary voters and caucus attendees don’t under ordinary circumstances opt for one candidate over another simply because they think that candidate can win. They look instead for a candidate they believe agrees with them on major issues and hope he or she can also win once nominated.

In addition, the electability argument is often made on behalf of candidates who may prove far less electable than their supporters suppose or who have little empirical evidence to support their claim of greater electability.

This may be Rudy’s emerging problem. Let’s assume for the moment that many Republicans so fear the possibility of a Clinton victory in November of next year that they will overlook almost any position.   Those voters would have to be convinced that the candidate running as the most electable potential nominee out there is in fact so much more attractive to general election voters than the others that they would be foolish to pick any other candidate.

Rudy’s emerging problem is that the very people he and his supporters are trying to convince that this is true, don’t seem to be buying. The polls show Rudy running a few points ahead of other candidates like ex-Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.), for example, in match- ups against Hillary, but not by enough to convince anyone that he is the only potential nominee with a chance of beating her.

Perhaps as a result of the evidence out there, as well as their own suspicion that some Republicans might stay home or support him less enthusiastically than they would others, Republican base voters aren’t all that convinced that Rudy would be all that much stronger than Thompson, Romney or even McCain in a race against Mrs. Clinton. In fact, the perception of Rudy as the most electable Republican is slipping among those very folks he needs to believe in him … his fellow Republicans.

A September Rasmussen poll found that 72 percent of Republicans believed in September that if nominated Rudy would be at least “somewhat likely” to beat Hillary next November. This month Rasmussen reports that number has slipped to 66 percent, while Thompson is seen as just as electable by some 61 percent of those polled (up from 57 percent in September).

What’s more, among those who give their party’s potential nominee a real shot at winning, Rudy and Fred are virtually tied. These numbers are especially important when one realizes that GOP primary voters see Thompson as much more conservative than Rudy and thus more the sort of candidate they would like to be able to support.

If voters believe that Thompson will run virtually as well against Hillary as would the far more liberal Giuliani, Rudy’s main argument and ultimately his candidacy could be in real trouble.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.

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