How Much Does the Republican Nominee Matter?

Especially in the aftermath of yesterday’s debate, we are going to hear a lot about whether Romney was successful in presenting Perry as unelectable (see here, here, and here for example). We’ve heard the same about Bachman, Paul, and Palin. So with that in mind, I want to throw out a provocative question: how much does it actually matter whom the Republicans nominate?

Here’s the spirit of the question. In alternate reality where unemployment falls to 6 percent by the 2010 mid-terms, the Democrats hold the house and expand on their majority in the Senate, and Obama has passed a few more signature pieces of legislation and then kills Osama Bin Laden to boot, we’re not talking about the Republican nominee making much difference. Similarly, if the Euro collapses tomorrow, financial panic spreads throughout the world and unemployment hits 20 percent by this summer, Obama is probably not getting re-elected. So at some places along the spectrum, the identity of the Republican nominee is fairly unimporant.

That being said, it is of course folly to argue that the identity of the nominee doesn’t matter at all. We can make up similar counter-factuals (e.g. if the Republicans nominate a convicted axe-murderer) to prove the point that there is a certain type of candidate that can never get elected. But let’s limit our universe of potential candidates to those who participated in the debate last night. How much of a boost would the most “electable” candidate provide in a general election as opposed to the least “electable”?

I will throw out the number that was given to me when I asked this same question this summer of a distinguished scholar of American politics: 2 percent. Does that strike readers as too low? too high? About right? To put this in perspective, if the “best” Republican candidate could win 52.5 percent of the vote, then it means any of them could probably win a majority of the popular vote.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Joshua Tucker

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University.