The "Most Electable" Republicans Running for President in 2016

Voters Choose Electability Over Ideology

Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Chip Somodevilla - Getty Images

Perhaps the biggest primary-within-the-primary is the one that determines who is the "most electable." The so-called "Buckley Rule" argues in favor of finding the most conservative candidate who is also the most electable candidate. After all, what good is a super-conservative who cannot get elected? Electability typically over-rides everything else, including ideological purity, according to most data available.

In 2012, Mitt Romney probably wasn't more conservative than, say, Michelle Bachmann, but he was probably a bit more electable.

Perception is key to winning this primary-within-the-primary. A Washington Post poll of Republican voters found that 71% said it was acceptable for the Republican nominee to take moderate positions on some issues, to just 19% who said the candidate should mostly take just conservative positions. Even a plurality (48%-43%) of self-identified "very conservative" voters took that position. A June 1st, 2015 poll by YouGov and sponsored by the Economist found that 70% of Republican voters preferred a nominee that could beat the Democrat even if they disagreed with them on some issues to just 17% who preferred a nominee who was less electable but were in agreement on almost every issue. So, like it or not, center-right candidates are typically viewed as more electable than right-right ones.

And this is how we end up with Mitt Romney over Rick Santorum and John McCain over Fred Thompson. And more than anything, this is why the winning the electability argument is the biggest argument one can win.

So who is winning?

The 3 Most Electable, So Far

This list will cause disagreements. There is no scientific formula.

There is no chart or checklist, but there are polls. Polls that candidates and supporters love when they are favorable and dismiss when they are not. Listening to others is key. How are candidates received by the establishment, by voters, by talk radio, and even on places like Twitter and Facebook that are loaded with highly active political activists and grassroots enthusiasts? What kind of overlap is there between all of these groups? With the first caucus and primary quickly approaching, and the kickoff debate just weeks away, this is where we start. Everything can change.

Three candidates have a strong case to make for being the most electable early on. First up is Marco Rubio. Right now he appears to be the favorite of the establishment, not counting the Bush loyalist contingency of course, and is very well liked by all factions of the party. He regularly ranks among the most popular candidates along with Scott Walker and Ben Carson among Republicans. He's incredibly quick on his feet and he seems to have an answer for everything. Throw in his ability to communicate and mix in some solid (and rapidly improving) head-to-head numbers against Hillary Clinton and it's easy to see him winning the electability argument.

Scott Walker is also in the mix. He's not as dynamic as Rubio, but he has a brag-worthy record, and brag on it he rightly does. He won in blue-state Wisconsin, which helps argument. Whether or not those victories in lower-turnout non-presidential years - or the failure of Romney/Ryan who argued the same - will limit the persuasiveness of the argument remains to be seen. (His gubernatorial victory in 2010 wasn't even the most impressive in the state that year. Ron Johnson knocking out Russ Feingold easily wins the prize.) But his potential blue-collar appeal makes him a strong candidate.

Finally, and against all odds, Rand Paul hits the list with an argument to make. Some have him in the top tier in the Republican primary, I do not. His negatives with primary voters are too high and he doesn't seem well-positioned in many non-caucus states.

He has an impossible task convincing national security hawks that he would be the best choice and large-dollar donors would be harder to come by. Younger voters like him, but the older voters who dominate the primaries do not. But here he is. His head-to-head numbers against Hillary are among the best, and he often out-performs Rubio and Walker against her. So the unconventional conservatarian might not be able to win the primary, but he could actually win the general election.

What About Jeb?

When Jeb Bush announced he wasn't going to change his positions to satisfy those pesky conservative voters his choice was strategic: He knows, as pointed out earlier, that voters prefer someone who is electable over someone more conservative but less electable. Out of the gate he said he would be willing to lose the primary to win the general election. Mitt Romney and John McCain were the rule to this strategy, not the exception. He was going to run on electability, and it might have worked.

The problem, though, is that other candidates with an electability argument to make emerged. Mitt Romney had no such competition. John McCain let the other candidates (Rick Perry, Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani) implode. George W. Bush was both more conservative and more electable than John McCain. Jeb has Rubio and Walker and Paul to deal with. Jeb hoped that when he announced his intentions to "possibly run" and launched a massive fundraising push that he would clear the field and face the Herman Cain's and Newt Gingrich's of the party.

Not only have more opted not to run, more seemed interested in running. Jeb has horrible poll numbers, both in general favorability and head-to-head battles versus Clinton. He has a lot of negatives that the other candidates do not. The non-Bush establishment doesn't seem enthusiastic at all. Does he have the personality to change perceptions? He would need to do more. A lot more.