NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — 2016 may go down in history as the year which definitively disproved the notion of “electability” in presidential primaries, according to Kellyanne Conway, president of The Polling Company. At a panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), three out of four moderators agreed that electability as an issue is dead.
Conway argued that “if you are a conservative, this is the presidential race that you have dreamed of for years.”
This fiction of electability — who can win, who can’t win — that has killed conservative candidates for years at the presidential level and elsewhere, is completely gone this cycle. The people who were supposed to win, and were electable, they are running off the stage. They are not even running for president anymore.”
She compared this result to the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, where “conservatives won everything.” But candidates in those years did not just win, Conway argued, they won by championing conservative values. They achieved victory at the polls “by running as free market, individual liberty, limited government, fiscally and socially conservative candidates.” The 2016 nomination race has favored conservatives because the 2010 and 2014 elections proved — beyond a shadow of a doubt — that Republicans do not have to run to the center in order to win.
Brittany Kaiser, director of program development at Cambridge Analytica, agreed. She declared that “the traditional wisdom is being completely shattered,” and that candidates like Donald Trump are remaking the electoral map. The people groups who can be generally relied upon to vote for certain candidates are no longer falling in line, and candidates have to find new ways of connecting with voters.
“This cycle has taught us that, no matter how strong the opinions of our candidates are, they are resonating with large portions of the population,” Kaiser declared. “Keeping consistent with those strong conservative positions will drive turnout,” rather than adopting moderate positions for the general election.
Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard, also agreed that electability means less in this election. He argued that Trump “has brought out a level of enthusiasm on the Republican side that we haven’t seen in a long time.” Due to this enthusiasm, Barnes predicted that Cruz, Rubio, or even Trump would likely defeat Hillary Clinton in the November election.
The lone dissenting voice came from Charles Hurt, a political columnist for the Washington Times. Hurt said that “you need the center right to be elected president, and that includes the center.” For that reason, he said Trump is not electable, because The Donald has alienated too many people, particularly Hispanics and many conservatives. Ted Cruz, however, has not alienated these groups, and while it would be difficult for Cruz to win in November, it is nevertheless “achievable.” Hurt said that Rubio is more electable, but not likely to win the nomination.
Next Page: Learning From Democrats — To Reject Electability?
Conway mentioned a very important key point about the “fiction of electability.” She noted that many recent Democrat nominees who won in a general election were outsider candidates. The Democrats never talk about electability, Conway argued. Instead, “they elevate young, transformational people who are told you can’t win, don’t even bother — and then they go on to run and win.”
JFK, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama — even Jimmy Carter was 52 years old with a nine-year-old daughter when he walked into the White House. These are young people.
Conway also argued that voters prefer optimism. “With the exception of 1972, this country has always elected for president a candidate they thought was more optimistic, more positive, projecting joy or hope.” Hillary Clinton does not possess these qualities. “If she is elected, she will make history,” because “this country has never elected a president whom over 50 percent of the people say is dishonest and not trustworthy.”
The pollster also projected a further weakness of Clinton’s campaign. “The new gender gap,” she argued, will be “the Democratic Party’s problem attracting men.” She noted that, in Democratic primaries and caucuses, the turnout has been 58 percent female, and only 42 percent male. “Men don’t like Hillary, they don’t trust her, and they don’t want her to be president of the United States or commander in chief. That is not going to change.”
Last Page: Does Higher Primary Turnout Predict a Republican Victory in the 2016 Election?
Another key point of Conway’s was that “electricity has replaced electability” in this campaign.
Here’s what the numbers say — A lot of people are voting. The turnout in these Republican primaries and caucuses is historic. You’ve got many more excited people who are willing to stand in line and cast a vote in the Republican primaries. So where the enthusiasm level is as high as it is this year, it means that voter engagement is very high.
While it is true that Republicans are hitting record voting numbers while Democrats are not, this does not necessarily mean more Republicans than Democrats will vote in November. The higher turnout could just mean more Republicans are showing up to vote against a candidate they oppose, be it Trump, Cruz, Rubio, or even Kasich. Indeed, the animus among many conservatives against Trump in particular led every panelist to agree that a contested convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in July is a bad idea. The convention may decide against Trump, but there would be bad blood on all sides.
Charles Hurt recalled a surprising moment in last Thursday’s Republican debate. When Trump declared his intentions to add further torture methods to waterboarding, the crowd broke into two discernable factions:
You had one row of people who were disgusted, saying “woah!” and then, two rows over, you had people yelling “yeah!” I thought, “wow, that’s the Republican Party in 2016.”
Hurt’s overall verdict on the enthusiasm level? “Until somebody figures out how to find the common ground between those kinds of people, the Republican Party’s going to be kind of screwed.” Ouch.