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Republicans are increasingly talking about ‘electability’ of their candidates ahead of 2024

Supporters of Republican gubernatorial candidate for Florida Ron DeSantis, who has been tipped as a possible 2024 presidential candidate, cheered during an election night watch party at the Convention Center in Tampa, Fla., on Nov. 8.GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Their last nominee, President Trump, lost in 2020. Their key Senate picks, many of whom he endorsed, couldn’t make it in swing states in 2022. They barely wrestled back control of the House.

So as the 2024 presidential contest ramps up with Trump in the field, several likely or declared Republican candidates are gently testing a message on their GOP base: Please, please, choose someone who can actually win.

Former UN ambassador Nikki Haley brought up her party’s mixed record — and the need to win outright — when she launched her campaign for the presidency this month in Charleston, S.C.

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“We’ve lost the popular vote in 7 of the past 8 elections,” Haley said, referring to the fact that the only Republican to win the popular vote and the electoral college since 1988 was George W. Bush with his re-election in 2004. “That ends today.”

It was inherent in South Carolina Senator Tim Scott’s call last week in Iowa for a conservative movement that can “once again carry 49 states and the popular vote,” a reference to past GOP landslides like in 1972, when President Nixon was re-elected and President Reagan’s win in 1984.

And it has been a key talking point for potential candidates like Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, who maintained in a recent interview with The Boston Globe that Trump would not be able to beat Biden in a general election.

“You’ve got to vote for the candidate that most represents your ideals and can win,” Sununu advised the GOP base. “There has to be an ‘and.’”

These candidates are essentially asking their base to behave a little bit like the Democratic primary electorate of 2020, who practically tore their hair out over the concept of “electability.” For some voters, that ultimately meant voting for a candidate who they perceived as safe and broadly appealing — Joe Biden — over one they might have at some point actually liked more.

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“Donald Trump united and focused us in a way that is probably unprecedented in history,” said Celinda Lake, who was a lead pollster for the Biden campaign in 2020, who argued that party unity helps voters move in lockstep when it comes to choosing an ‘electable’ candidate. “What’s really interesting in the Republicans is they have no such unified view.”

Republicans, she said, “paid a high price in 2022 for some of the candidates they nominated,” but the party remains divided on whether the way to win going forward is to lean into policies that animate its base, or focus on persuadable voters.

Republican pollsters aren’t sure which path voters will choose.

“You’ve now heard a couple of candidates talk about the concept of winning the popular vote and that whole construct of electability,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster. “It clearly is going to have some impact. The scale of that impact is not clear at this point.”

Trump is still viewed favorably by about two-thirds or more of Republicans, according to multiple surveys, but that doesn’t mean they’ll all vote for him again, said veteran Republican pollster, Whit Ayres. His current and potential competitors are beginning to make the case — with varying levels of directness — that voters should consider alternatives after the losses in the 2018 midterms, the 2020 general election, the 2021 Senate runoffs, and the 2022 midterms.

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“If Republican primary voters come to believe that nominating Donald Trump in 2024 will lead Republicans to lose 5 national elections in a row,” said Ayres,“it then opens the door to other alternatives.”

According to Ayres’ polling and focus groups, about one-third of Republicans are what he calls “Always Trump” voters, who would cast a ballot for Trump no matter what. Ten percent of the party, he says, would never vote for the former president.

That leaves about 55 to 60 percent of Republicans who he considers “maybe Trump” voters — who voted for him twice and still like him, but are open to alternative candidates. And that is the group that other candidates need to convince with a pragmatic argument.

“It is one of the core arguments behind the ‘maybe Trump’ coalition, because they believe that Donald Trump could not win in 2024 and they want a candidate who can,” Ayres said. “Electability is a primary motivating force.”

Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Trump’s campaign, said it was focused on winning in a “dominating fashion,” and said no other candidate can generate “enthusiasm and excitement like he can.”

Other potential candidates, meanwhile, have embraced the tactic of making the explicit case that they are not losers.

“In my case, not only did we win reelection, we won with the highest percentage of the vote that any Republican governor candidate has in the history of the state of Florida,” Governor Ron DeSantis, a likely contender who leads Trump in some polls, said at a January press conference when he was asked about the former president’s increasing attacks on him.

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And Sununu compared his 15.5-point win last November to that of retired general Don Bolduc, a candidate cut from Trump’s right-wing mold who lost the New Hampshire Senate race by 9 points.

Part of the challenge with election-year discussions of “electability” is that it is not clear what they actually mean. After all, Trump himself upended the conventional understanding of “electability” when he cannonballed into the presidency in 2016 after a coarse campaign in which he offended immigrants and Muslims and was heard on tape glorifying sexual assault. After the 2020 election, he spent years muddying the waters around the perception of his own electability — at least with his base — by insisting he did not actually lose.

In 2020, female candidates and candidates of color found that voters who had mostly seen white men get elected president before saw those with diverse attributes as more of a risk — something Haley already appears to be trying to counter by speaking frequently on the campaign trail about how she has been “underestimated” but became the first woman of color to be elected governor before being safely re-elected.

And, in a chicken-or-the-egg moment during a CNN interview on Sunday, Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel suggested the party’s recent problems with electability were not because of its candidates, but because of its voters.

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We saw big races lost this cycle because of Republicans refusing to support other Republicans. And unless we fix this in our party, unless we start coming together, we will not win in 2024,” McDaniel said.

But as Winston sees it, the most important aspect of “electability” is a candidate’s ability to garner independent voters in a general election. In 2022, independent voters made up 31 percent of the electorate, he said — their highest share since 1980 — and they broke for Democratic candidates, which helped that party hold the Senate and stave off their losses in the House.

And the candidates’ current embrace of culture war issues relating to gender, education, and the country’s history of racism, while alluring to their base, could limit their appeal to the independent voters they need to be electable. Those voters care more about economic issues, Winston said.

“If all that’s being delivered is a base message then great, you’ll do really well with your base, but you’re not gonna get the vote to go over the top,” Winston said.


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.