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Why “Electability” Is a Useless Argument Against Donald Trump

Both Ted Cruz and John Kasich are making the case that they're more viable in November than the frontrunner. It won't work.


The Republican candidates and their allies have used every attack they could muster against Donald Trump, from shady business deals to flagrant misogyny, and all their attempts to stop him have failed. Now, with just 80 days and ten primaries left until the Republican Convention, Ted Cruz and John Kasich are resorting to the last possible argument in their favor: that Trump would lose, spectacularly, to Hillary Clinton in the general election, while I (insert candidate’s name) would defeat her.

Both men are doubling down on “electability” in the final days before next week’s Indiana primary, which is shaping up as the last big stand for the #NeverTrump brigade. But they seem blissfully unaware that the strategy is almost certainly doomed to fail—partly because voters are hearing two candidates simultaneously claiming the “most electable” mantle. Cruz and Kasich are not only arguing with Trump about who could win a general election, but with each other. 

Early this month, ten days before the New York primary, the Kasich campaign signaled its focus on electability with a new commercial called “One Choice.” “You have only one choice,” the narrator intones, while sepia-toned posters of the other candidates flash across the screen. “One choice that will stop the Clinton political machine: John Kasich.” The Ohio governor has been making the same argument in person—a lot. “I’m the only one who can defeat Hillary Clinton consistently in 15 national polls,” he told John Dickerson on CBS’s Face the Nation this past Sunday. “When we’re at the convention, the delegates are going to want to know who can beat Hillary.” 

Cruz is making the same pitch for himself—which involves making the case that he, not Kasich, is the only truly electable option. Shortly before the Associated Press announced Trump had swept all five East Coast primaries on Tuesday, Cruz was telling supporters in Indiana, “Donald Trump is the one man on Earth that Hillary could beat.” His allies at the Club for Growth are using a similar argument in the ads they launched in Indiana this week, while they also take a dig at Kasich. “Only Ted Cruz can beat Donald Trump,” the narrator says in one of the spots, as a disembodied hand scribbles on a chalkboard. “John Kasich can’t do it. The math won’t work.”

On the surface, “he can’t win, but I can” sounds like a pretty compelling argument to make to voters—especially to voters of a party that has lost the last two presidential elections. The Republican rank-and-file desperately want a Republican in the White House, so they ought to support whomever has the best shot at defeating the presumptive Democratic nominee. Right?

History suggests otherwise. As Jason Zengerle wrote in late 2007, “Candidates who resort to playing the electability card are, more often than not, losers.” One of the textbook examples came in 1964, when Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton mounted a late effort to supplant the frontrunner, Barry Goldwater, at the Republican Convention in San Francisco. If there was ever a case to be made for a frontrunner being “unelectable,” this was it: Goldwater was seen by mainstream Republicans as far too radically right-wing to have a chance against President Lyndon Johnson that November. (And in the end, they were proved right when LBJ won in a historic landslide.) At the convention, Scranton sent an angry public letter to Goldwater that denounced him for his “whole crazy quilt collection of absurd and dangerous positions.” But Scranton, a moderate up-and-comer who was sometimes likened to a Republican version of John F. Kennedy, couldn’t overcome the passion of the Goldwaterites. He managed to win over ten state delegations at the convention, but Goldwater still clinched the nomination on the first ballot.

Forty-four years later, in 2008, Hillary Clinton hinged much of her case against upstart candidate Barack Obama on being more electable. In late May, as her path to the nomination narrowed, the Clinton campaign wrote a final plea to Democratic superdelegates. It included a whole section titled “Hillary Clinton is the Most Electable Candidate vs. John McCain,” which cited polls that showed her beating McCain by three points in the general election—and Obama losing by the same margin. But that argument made no difference, as Clinton’s superdelegates continued to switch their allegiance to Obama. 

In the 2016 Republican contest, the chance that electability will matter to voters is lower than ever. The way rank-and-file conservatives see it, the party acceded to its most “electable” candidates in the last two cycles, when it nominated John McCain and Mitt Romney and bypassed more ideological choices. For many, if not most, Republicans, “electability” has come to look like a way to both compromise the party’s principles and lose general elections. Which explains why, in Iowa this year, only 21 percent of Republican voters indicated in exit polls that they were looking for a candidate who “can win.” In New York, where Kasich was running ads that highlighted how Cruz and Trump would both lose to Clinton in the general, only 11 percent said they were looking for an electable candidate. Instead, most Republicans consistently say that they want a candidate who “shares their values.” And increasingly, they’re coalescing around Trump as that candidate.

“A party is more than a collection of individuals looking for an appealing candidate,” Jeff Greenfield wrote at Politico this week. “It’s an organization searching for the person who the best embodies their beliefs.” Voters only get to vote in a presidential primary every four years, and it’s natural that they want to use that opportunity to weigh in on the direction their party is taking, not compromise their beliefs for a candidate who looks (or claims to be) likelier to win a general election.  

It doesn’t help that neither Cruz nor Kasich comes across as particularly electable. Cruz, after all, is one of the most hated men in Washington. This week, former House speaker John Boehner called him “Lucifer in the flesh” during a talk at Stanford University, adding, “I have never worked with a more miserable son of a bitch in my life.” Kasich, for his part, has a rambling, unfocused campaigning style that strongly suggests Clinton would eviscerate him on a debate stage. Plus, it’s a bit challenging to make the case that you’re a likely winner in November when you face a nearly impossible path to the nomination—even more far-fetched than Cruz’s—and have won only a single primary (in your home state).

The premise that Donald Trump is even less electable is a hard sell, too. Granted, pollsters are saying that Trump would lose in a general election contest and hurt Republicans down the ballot. But most voters see the reverse when they tune into the news every day, with Trump getting more media attention than any other candidate, and with all the talk about how indomitable Trump is, how he just swept 60 percent of the vote in the “Acela primary” states. Does that sound like an “unelectable” candidate? Not so much. 


This week, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump shifted most of their advertising dollars to Indiana, where they’re locked in a tight battle before the May 3 primary. Cruz and his allies are recycling several old ads, but both he and Trump have also debuted new ones this week. Meanwhile, John Kasich has trained his sights on Oregon, which votes on May 17, and Hillary Clinton has pivoted into general-election, anti-Trump mode. Below, we’ve analyzed six new ads that aired for the first time this week. You can see every presidential campaign ad that’s run during this cycle at the New Republic’s 2016 Campaign Ad Archive

John Kasich: “Vote Kasich” 

Type: Issue ad

Who Paid for It? The Kasich campaign

Reach: Aired in Oregon

Impact: This ad reduces Kasich’s electability argument to a nutshell. It quotes the stunning statistic that the Ohio governor is the only Republican candidate not disliked by most of the electorate. A newscaster concludes: “Governor John Kasich is the only GOP presidential contender that could get more electoral college votes than Hillary Clinton and beat her in a general election.” 

Donald Trump: “My Dad” 

Type: Biographical ad

Who Paid for It? The Trump campaign

ReachAired in Indiana as part of a $1 million ad buy

Impact: This commercial presents Trump, the family man. He smooches his grandkids. Donald Jr. talks adoringly about his own childhood. Welcome to Trump’s new plan to sew up the Republican nomination. His top aides are pressuring him to tone down his incendiary rhetoric, and while he seems to want to keep it up on the campaign trail, his ads are a different story. Interestingly enough, Hilary Clinton also used her grandchild when re-introducing herself to voters last summer. Maybe Trump will soon be cradling babies on the campaign trail, too. 

Donald Trump: “Washington Is Broken” 

Type: Issue ad 

Who Paid for It? The Trump campaign

Reach: Aired in Pennsylvania in the Pittsburgh media market as part of a $1.4 million ad buy

Impact: In this spot, Trump adopts a technique that Ted Cruz and Scott Walker have used in the past: talking directly to the viewer for a full 30 seconds. But Trump still manages to subvert your expectations. He’s pictured in front of the looming skyscrapers and bustling traffic of midtown Manhattan—an unusual choice, given that New York is often vilified in campaign ads. But the message is clear: Trump means business, even if he has to scream over the inspirational soundtrack to be heard. 

Hillary Clinton: “Love and Kindness” 

Type: Inspirational ad

Who Paid for It? The Clinton campaign

ReachAired in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Connecticut in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Hartford media markets

Impact: Clinton has long struggled to make herself seem inspirational. But these clips of her talking to the victims of gun violence and their family members are moving, if a little too on-the-nose. (Oh, another clip of Clinton holding hands with someone!) Clinton clearly wants to set herself up as the candidate who builds people up, not tears them down. It’s the best weapon she has in her arsenal against Donald Trump. So you should expect to see a lot more messages like “spread a little hope and love now” in the general. 

Ted Cruz: “A Serious Leader”

Type: Issue ad

Who Paid for It? Trusted Leadership PAC, one of the outside groups backing Ted Cruz

Reach: Aired in Indiana

Impact: This ad inadvertently highlights the mixed messages the Cruz campaign and its allies are sending. In his campaign ads this cycle, the Texas senator has gone from talking about his principles, to lobbing outright attacks on Trump, to, most recently, advancing a kinder, gentler persona. Now, the Trusted Leadership PAC is backtracking to the kind of ads we saw after the Paris attacks—all terrorism, all the time. But those “radical Islamic terrorism” spots didn’t work particularly well to stop Donald Trump then, and it’s doubtful that they’ll be any more successful this time around. 

Ted Cruz: “#CruzCarly for Jobs, Freedom, and Security”

Type: Endorsement ad

Who Paid for It? The Cruz campaign

Reach: Aired in Indiana

Impact: “Jobs, Freedom, Security” may be one of the most forgettable campaign slogans this election cycle, second only to the “New American Century” Marco Rubio referenced all the time. But what’s weirdest about this slogan is that Cruz only recently introduced it: The phrase shows up first in our Ad Archive at very end of March—a little late to be rebranding during an election cycle.