Is Rick Perry electoral poison?

Why it really matters that he's scaring the bejesus out of Republican Party leaders right now

Published August 18, 2011 5:55PM (EDT)

Rick Perry at the Iowa State Fair on Monday.
Rick Perry at the Iowa State Fair on Monday.

Rick Perry can come across like a parody of George W. Bush, has a history of inflammatory rhetoric, and in just a few days as a presidential candidate has shown a tendency for unhinged antics. All of which has prompted understandable talk that the Texas governor may have an electability problem.

But here there's something of a paradox at work: It's actually very possible that the chatter is overstated and that Perry really is quite electable -- but electability could end up dooming his campaign anyway.

If that sounds confusing, it may be helpful to look at it this way: In presidential politics, electability works on two levels. There's the literal question of whether a candidate's liabilities would cause him or her to underachieve as a party's nominee -- to run a few potentially critical points below the level of support a generic candidate from the same party would receive. But there's also the equally (if not more) important psychological question: Does the candidate's party believe there's an electability problem, even if there isn't one?

With Perry, these could be two very different questions.

On the literal electability one, it's certainly easy to make the case that he'd underperform as a candidate against Barack Obama, potentially costing the GOP an election that -- given the economic conditions that figure to define the '12 race -- it might otherwise win.

But as I pointed out a while back, candidates who seem unelectable during the primary season can start to look very different -- to their parties, to the media and to voters -- once they actually win the nomination. The classic example of this is Bill Clinton, who was considered (even by his own party) a certain general election loser well into the spring of 1992, mainly because of all of the scandals that had erupted during the primary season. But by the fall, Clinton was cruising to victory, and his image had completely changed from scandalized charlatan to peerless political talent.

The Clinton '92 story speaks to the preeminent role that the economy plays in presidential races. One of the reasons Clinton was able to rebound so easily from his spring nadir was that voters were unsually restive and eager to throw out the incumbent, George H.W. Bush. Thus, they were inclined to give the challenger the benefit of the doubt, and Clinton was able to earn it. Could Perry, despite his early stumbles, do the same thing under similar conditions in 2012? Sure.

Nor does Perry's political history in Texas really tell us much about his electability. At FiveThirtyEight today, Nate Silver makes the case -- based on a comparison of Perry's past performance in statewide elections with the performances of the other Republicans who were on the ballot with him --  that Perry underperformed in the past two gubernatorial elections, in 2010 and 2006.

But here the Clinton example is relevant, too: In his 1990 reelection bid in Arkansas, he won by 14 points over Sheffield Nelson. By contrast, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor (Jim Guy Tucker) won by 48 points, the Democratic candidate for secretary of state (Bill McCuen) won by 24, and the four Democratic candidates for Congress in the state won by margins of 20, 28, 40 and 42 points. And David Pryor, the Democratic senator who was up for reelection, didn't even receive a Republican challenger. Of the major Democratic candidates in Arkansas in 1990, only the party's pick for attorney general (Winston Bryant) fared worse than Clinton, winning his race by 9 points. (And Clinton's winning margin, for what it's worth, was also probably inflated because of lingering divisions among Republicans after their heated primary.) In other words, Clinton's Arkansas performance didn't tell us much about his national electability, and the same may be true of Perry's past results in Texas.

Not that Perry should be encouraged by this. Because even if concerns about his electability are unfounded, that won't stop Republican Party leaders from worrying -- and, if they feel the need, working hard to prevent him from winning their nomination.

That's what we've started to see this week, with influential, opinion-shaping voices on the right weighing in to express concerns about Perry's campaign trail antics -- and to call for new candidates to enter the race. Clearly, the "elites" of the Republican Party, who play a vital role in crafting the talking points that shape mass GOP opinion, are fearful that Perry might be a general election liability. And if he keeps behaving as he has these past few days, their concerns will only grow -- as will the number of GOP elites willing to express them publicly. Just consider this comment from Alex Castellanos, a GOP consultant and frequent cable news guest:

"It would be understatement to say I've not been a fan of Rick Perry for president. His shoot-from-the-lips style conveys thoughtlessness. Additionally, the suburbs won't put Elmer Gantry in the Oval Office: Perry can't permit voters to conclude he sells his faith more than he lives it."

Is Castellanos right that Perry would fare poorly in the suburbs as a general election candidate? Who knows? It's entirely beside the point, which is that if GOP elites like Castellanos -- and Fox News, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and voices like (say) Sean Hannity and Charles Krauthammer -- feel compelled to make statements like this, it will end up hurting Perry's standing with Republican primary voters.

My favorite example of this phenomenon comes from the 2000 campaign, when it seemed obvious to all the world that John McCain would be a stronger general election candidate for the GOP than George W. Bush. But many of the party's elites still believed Bush could win in the fall -- and loathed McCain personally. So they created their own electability argument, claiming that McCain only seemed to be faring well in general election polls because "mischievous" Democrats were tricking pollsters in an attempt to get the GOP to nominate a weak candidate -- and not the guy they really feared, Bush. This was utter nonsense, of course, but they sold it well, the base bought it, and McCain was shut down.

With Perry, the same thing could happen -- although if it does, it would be because the GOP's elites genuinely believe he'd be a general election risk. That concern may or may not be valid -- but that probably doesn't really matter.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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