GOP voters’ judgment is a mysterious thing

Kevin Drum argued a few days ago that Rick Perry probably can’t beat President Obama or even win the Republican nomination. After facing some pushback, Kevin elaborated yesterday, listing 10 reasons the Texas governor’s campaign will falter. It’s an entirely persuasive case, but the tenth bullet point got me thinking: “Republicans want to beat Obama.”

They really, really want to beat Obama. Romney is still their best chance, and down deep I think they know it.

My gut tells me this is entirely correct. The rest of me isn’t sure.

Last year, Republicans really, really wanted to beat Harry Reid. Nevada Republicans knew, down deep, that Sharron Angle was ridiculous, but they nominated her anyway. Republicans really wanted to win Senate races in Delaware and Colorado, too. But they overlooked the better, more electable candidates, and lost.

To be sure, the parallels are imprecise. Turnout in presidential nominating contests is significantly greater than in off-year Senate primaries, and bring in a larger, more diverse universe of voters. But the larger point is, assuming that Republican voters will exercise sound judgment when backing a candidate — even in a race they’re desperate to win — is often a mistake.

About a month ago, a national McClatchy-Marist poll asked Republican respondents, “Which one of the following qualities is most important to you in deciding who to support for the Republican presidential nomination, a candidate who shares your values, is closest to you on the issues, can beat President Obama in 2012, or has the experience to govern?” Beating the president came in last; sharing their values was easily the top answer. Maybe that’ll change as the voting draws closer; maybe it won’t.

As for Romney being the strongest GOP contender, that also rings true. But have you noticed just how little heat Romney is taking from the right? We are, after all, talking about a former pro-choice governor who supported gay rights, gun control, immigration reform, and combating climate change, who distanced himself from Reagan, attended Planned Parenthood fundraisers, has a dreadful record on job creation, and changed his mind about more issues than perhaps any politician in America. There’s also the unfortunate fact his health care reform policy served as a blueprint for the Affordable Care Act, which the GOP base considers demonic.

How much have Republican voters heard about any of this as this process has unfolded? So far, not much, which suggest to me that Romney’s status as a frontrunner is a bubble that could burst very quickly, electability considerations notwithstanding.

And if Romney’s record eventually becomes a key factor in the nominating process, I suspect Perry’s odds of becoming the nominee are extremely good.