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The Wishy-Washy, Squishy-Squashy Pseudoscience of Electability


Political scientists, for their part, have taken a stab at gauging electability. At conferences and in journal articles, these academics have tried to suss out just what makes a candidate electable—or, at the very least, what makes voters perceive a candidate as electable. Physically attractive male candidates, one group of political scientists concluded, enjoy an electability advantage, but the same group could find no straightforward link between attractiveness and electability for female candidates. Similarly, some political scientists found that male politicians with hair tend to get elected more than balding ones. (There doesn’t appear to be any research on the electability of balding female candidates.) And in 1994, two professors from William & Mary and the University of Colorado went so far as to come up with an actual electability formula, which looks like this:

Candidate electability = a + b1 (party) + b2 (evaluation of C) + b3 (C’s proximity to R) + b4 (C’s proximity to the average voter) + b5 (C’s proximity to party) + b6 (C’s nomination chances) + b7 (C’s TV performance) + e

Political professionals, however, take a more straightforward approach: They gauge electability by looking at public-opinion polls. Of course, polls can be twisted in certain ways—and no one’s done more twisting to his advantage than Giuliani.

On one level, the argument for Giuliani’s electability is simple logic. The political environment right now couldn’t be worse for Republicans: A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that a generic Democratic presidential candidate trounces a generic Republican presidential candidate 50 to 35 percent. So it stands to reason that an unconventional Republican like Giuliani—with his liberal-to-moderate views on social issues and his New York City address—is more electable than a conventional one like Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, or McCain circa 2008. (McCain circa 2000 would have been a different story.) What’s more, Giuliani’s less-appealing, unconventional features—namely his messy personal life—probably wouldn’t prove too great a liability in a general election. While an October New York Times/CBS News poll found that two thirds of Republicans believe that presidential candidates should be judged on both their political records and their personal lives, those same Republicans would have presumably made their peace with Giuliani if they’d chosen him as their party’s nominee. Meanwhile, the same poll found that only half of Democrats and independents—the very voters Giuliani would be making a play for in November—think that a presidential candidate’s personal life matters. Rudy’s religion wouldn’t hurt him, either: Numerous public-opinion surveys show that more than 90 percent of Americans would have no trouble voting for a Catholic. (Mitt Romney’s religion, however, may be another story: A recent Newsweek poll found that 28 percent of Americans wouldn’t vote for a Mormon presidential candidate.)

The former GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who has been conducting postdebate focus groups for Fox News, describes Giuliani’s electability as a simple matter of personality: “Rudy exudes electability,” he says. “He exudes confidence to a Republican Party scared to death of losing to Hillary Clinton.”

The Giuliani campaign, for its part, has seized on electability and attempted to run with it well past the point of reason. In October, Giuliani’s “strategy director,” Brent Seaborn, produced one of those ever-popular “electability” memos, which came out at the same time a map was leaked from the campaign showing that in a general-election matchup with Clinton, Rudy would win, or strongly contend in, a whopping 48 states—with the only states “safe” for Clinton being the pinko playgrounds of Massachusetts and Vermont. Even if Rudy doesn’t come close to pulling a Nixon and winning in 49 states, Seaborn argued, merely being competitive in them would prove beneficial: “Hillary Clinton will be forced to advertise in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago—the three most expensive media markets in the country, something Democrats haven’t had to do in twenty years. This will effectively take Florida off of the Democrats’ target map—making it a safe Republican state in 2008 if Mayor Giuliani is the nominee. If another Republican is the nominee, traditional blue states will be safe, meaning the Democrats can plow all their resources into Ohio and Florida.”

Unfortunately for Giuliani, Seaborn’s electoral map is so optimistic it’s delusional. Outside Rudyworld, it’s hard to find anyone who believes that states like California, Washington, and Maryland—all deemed toss-ups by Seaborn in a Giuliani-versus-Clinton matchup—won’t go to the Democratic candidate by wide margins in 2008. Indeed, even some inhabitants of Rudyworld implicitly acknowledge as much: Would so many Giuliani supporters be backing a California ballot initiative that seeks to apportion the state’s electoral votes by congressional district instead of by the usual winner-take-all method if they thought their guy actually had a shot at winning there? In fact, in a SurveyUSA poll from October, Hillary’s thumping Rudy in California 55 to 39. L.A. TV stations better not count on Hillary’s advertising to fill their coffers come next fall. The same goes for TV stations on Rudy’s—and Hillary’s—home turf. Although Seaborn says New York would be in play in a Rudy-versus-Hillary contest, the polls disagree: According to an October poll from Quinnipiac University, Hillary beats Rudy 52 to 41 in their home state. Indeed, the greatest chink in Rudy’s electability armor is another October poll, this one by ABC News and the Washington Post, which showed Hillary leading Rudy 51 to 43 in a nationwide contest. Even worse for Rudy’s electability prospects, the same poll found that while 41 percent of Americans would never vote for Hillary, 44 percent would decline to vote for Giuliani. Although a November NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed Giuliani pulling to within one point against Clinton—losing 45 to 46—that hardly makes him a slam dunk.

There’s also the potential complication of a pro-life candidate, or a certain billionaire from New York, running on a third-party ticket should Giuliani get the Republican nomination. With a pro-life candidate in the race, according to an October Rasmussen poll, Rudy would get only 30 percent of the vote, with 14 percent going to the third-party conservative and 46 percent going to Hillary.

Then again, regardless of any third-party candidate, 54 percent of people surveyed in the recent ABC News/Washington Post poll said they’d never vote for Fred Thompson, and 57 percent put the kibosh on ever voting for Romney. So, relatively speaking, maybe there is something to Giuliani’s electability argument.


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