Rick Perry: National or Niche Candidate?

Since the entry of Texas Gov. Rick Perry into the Republican presidential field, there has been a great deal of airtime and ink dedicated to commenting on his viability in both the primary election and the general. When it comes to the primary, recent surveys have shown Perry doing well, coming in a close second behind Gov. Mitt Romney. As Perry's name ID improves (nationally, he hovered around 56% before his announcement), he's likely to see a bump in those numbers.

But in a year when Republicans are hungry to defeat President Obama and to regain control of the White House, will "electability" play a role in the party's selection process? Moreover, just how "electable" is Gov. Perry nationwide?

There are two emerging camps of thought on this issue. The first, dominant at the moment, is the idea that Gov. Perry will run into trouble as a national candidate, allowing President Obama to win swing groups and swing states. But the second, first explored by National Journal's Josh Kraushaar, is that Perry was able to do reasonably well in his 2010 re-election race among groups like independents, women, and Latinos.

I think a useful way to look at this is to compare Perry's performance with swing groups to the performance of McCain in 2008 as well as the national level performance of House Republicans in 2010. Neither comparison is perfect, but it does shed light on how Perry has run about as well as a traditional Republican candidate would with these groups.

First, let's take women. In 2010, Gov. Perry won 53% of female voters in Texas, very similar to the 52% of Texas women who voted for Sen. McCain in 2008, and slightly better than the 49% of women nationwide who chose a Republican candidate for the House in 2010. It's good news for Perry that he outperformed the 2010 national numbers for women, but it remains to be seen if women in other states will vote for Perry in the same numbers that women in Texas have.

Next, let's look at independents. Perry performed less well with Texas independents in 2010 than John McCain did in 2008; Perry won 56%, while McCain won 62%. However, Perry ran even with House Republicans among this critical group, who also earned the votes of 56% of independents nationwide in 2010.

Because Texas has a higher proportion of Latino voters, much will be made of Perry's ability to appeal to this group. In his 2010 race, Perry won 38% of Latinos, which slightly outperformed both McCain in Texas in '08 (35%) and House Republicans in '10 (35%). While this doesn't indicate he's substantially better with this group, it also shows he's not doing worse and could be competitive with the Latino vote in other key states like Florida.

The major caution flag that he been raised about Perry's electability points to his appeal among evangelicals. In his 2010 race, Perry won 84% of white evangelicals but only 42% of the rest of the electorate. At first blush, this appears to be a problem; after all, while white evangelicals made up 35% of the Texas 2010 electorate, while they only made up 1 out of 4 voters nationwide, and only 23% of GOP primary voters in New Hampshire in 2008.

However, take a look at how John McCain did among Texas voters in 2008. McCain won 83% of evangelicals, and 42% of non-evangelicals. House Republicans also won only 42% of non-evangelicals. Sound familiar? That's the same level that Gov. Perry performed at with Texas non-evangelicals in 2010 - 42%.

All of which is to say that the exit polls do not give the impression that Gov. Perry is likely to be less appealing to swing voters than someone like John McCain in 2008. That news isn't terribly great; as Kraushaar points out in his piece, McCain did not come away with the win in the 2008 election. Perry would have to do much better.

Yet on the other hand, Perry appears not to be a "niche" candidate and performs the same as House Republicans did nationwide in 2010. If he can carry his numbers beyond Texas, he would be a serious contender for the Presidency.

In order to become president, Perry would have to build on his current status with swing groups. But to count him out and dismiss his candidacy out of hand would be an incredible folly for strategists on either side of the aisle.