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Why don't GOP voters care about electability this year?

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a primary election night party after his win in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday.
Matt Rourke
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a primary election night party after his win in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday.

Nikki Haley is continuing to lean hard into one particular argument in her stump speech: electability.

"Republicans have lost the last seven out of eight popular votes for president. That's nothing to be proud of," the former U.N. ambassador has told crowds in Iowa, New Hampshire and now South Carolina, before boasting of a December Wall Street Journal poll that found her 17 points ahead of Joe Biden in a head-to-head matchup.

The argument failed in the first two voting contests, now that Haley has lost to Donald Trump by more than 30 points in Iowa and, a smaller margin, but still double-digits in New Hampshire.

Moreover, polls show that voters just don't care that much about electability. Entrance polls showed that only 14% of Iowa GOP caucusgoers said a candidate's ability to defeat Biden was their top factor in choosing. Meanwhile, 41% chose someone who "shared their values."

Similarly, in New Hampshire exit polls, the same percentage of Republican primary voters, 14%, ranked the ability to defeat Biden as their top priority. Choosing a candidate who "fights for people like me" garnered the top choice of 31% of those voters, while shared values was most important to another 30%.

All of this might surprise anyone who paid attention to the last presidential election. In 2020, Democratic voters badly wanted Trump out of office and were therefore obsessed with nominating a presidential candidate who was electable — someone who could defeat Trump.

This year, Republican voters also badly want to defeat Biden, but many say electability isn't a big factor for them. And the reasons for that are complicated.

How electability changes by year

Concerns about electability vary greatly by election. For example, voters who want to move on from a two-term presidency in the opposing party — as with Democrats in 2008 — might about something other than electability (in the case of 2008 Democrats, that something was "change").

Similarly, voting a sitting president out of office can raise the salience of electability. In 2012, when Republicans were eager to vote Barack Obama out of office, a plurality of both Iowa Republican caucusgoers and New Hampshire Republican primary voters said electability was their top concern.

Still, the parties generally have different attitudes toward electability, says Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University.

"Republicans do not perceive a tradeoff between rallying the base and winning a general election, whereas Democrats do perceive that tradeoff," he said.

One possible reason why, Grossmann said, is that Republicans correctly perceive America's conservative bent — more Americans consider themselves conservative than liberal.

But Grossmann adds that the cause and effect of electability is complicated.

"The candidate that you support influences who you think is electable. So most people will choose their candidate and then say that candidate is more electable."

Similarly, a candidate who works hard to bill themselves as electable will attract voters who care about that quality.

Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks at a New Hampshire primary night rally, in Concord, N.H., on Tuesday.
Steven Senne / AP
Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks at a New Hampshire primary night rally, in Concord, N.H., on Tuesday.

Barbara Grieb is one of those voters. She went to see Haley last week in Rochester, N.H.

"I think that even Democrats, women Democrats, are ready for a woman in the White House," she said. She added: "A win is important. And I think that's why I am eliminating President Trump because I just don't think he's got the likability, obviously, from Democrats."

One complicating factor this year is that many Republicans see Biden as a particularly weak candidate, so they don't need to worry about electability.

It is true that Biden is unpopular — his net approval is at around negative 16 points. But he's not at all sure to lose.

Many head-to-head polls show Trump and Biden about even with each other, or Trump with a slight advantage. Head-to-head polls between Haley and Biden also don't show either with a clear lead.

Which reveals another important point: neither Haley nor Trump appears to have a clear electability advantage right now.

Two Trump curveballs

Trump introduces two potential other confounding factors to the electability equation this year. One is that as the last Republican president, he's essentially running as a Republican incumbent.

And along with that, he brings his feverishly devoted followers. And even if some of them briefly glanced at other candidates, many came home to Trump in the end. Peggy Hutchison is one — she went to a Trump rally the day before the Iowa caucuses in bitterly cold weather. She was wearing a Trump T-shirt — more specifically, a shirt emblazoned with the Punisher logo wearing Trump's distinctive yellow coif. She said she had been to eight Trump rallies. And also...

"I was at January 6th also. But I didn't go in [to the Capitol]. I was there," she said.

"I left when I could tell it was getting out of hand," she added with a laugh.

Hutchison had gone to events for two other Republican candidates — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy. But she explained why she decided on Trump.

"His platform," she said. "I haven't heard anything that he stands for that I don't stand for."

I asked her specifically about electability. She said that while she thinks Trump will defeat Biden, that didn't play into her decision at all. She simply has liked Trump since 2015.

In addition, Trump's lie that he won the 2020 election also plays into how Trump voters think about electability this year. Pat McGee went out to see Trump in Portsmouth. Why did she plan to vote for him?

"He knows what to do and he knows who to do it to," she said. "He knows which people to trust and which people are RINOs — which people to pick that would be in his Cabinet and support."

I asked her: is she confident that if he's the nominee, Trump can defeat Biden?

"He will. Yeah," she said.

I pointed out that Trump lost to Biden in 2020. McGee made a skeptical face.

"He didn't lose."

To the degree that Trump voters think he's electable, that perception is fueled by Trump's lie about the 2020 election. Convince voters you've never lost, and you might sound like the most electable candidate around.

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Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.