There are a lot of takeaways from this new CNN/ORC poll (such as Rand’s gender gap and Jeb’s struggles), but I think we’re probably underplaying something: We are now beginning to see empirical confirmation that a Republican could actually defeat Hillary Clinton for president in a head-to-head matchup. (Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker are all essentially within the margin of error.)
Now, I realize it’s early and that a general election isn’t about the national popular vote, but that’s not the point. Having lost two consecutive presidential elections (and the popular vote in five of the last six), it stands to reason that a lot of rank and file Republicans around the nation have adopted a bit of a defeatist attitude. Just as sports fans tend to turn out at the ballpark in smaller numbers when a team goes on a decades-long slump, it’s fair to assume at least some Republican voters, activists, and donors have grown demoralized and apathetic. The bandwagon effect is real. Losing isn’t fun; winning is.
There’s a theory that we have to be able to imagine someone as president before it’s possible he or she becomes president. “You gotta believe.” This makes sense, and I suspect that had something to do with the “hope” side of the “hope and change” mantra. Along those lines, if we start to see Republicans consistently beating Hillary in polls, I suspect a few things will happen: First, it will greatly aid those Republicans in their primary battles, providing an “electability” rationale for their candidacy. This could help winnow the field, eliminating the danger of another “clown car” campaign. It could help voters coalesce around a few candidates who are polling well against Hillary. Primary voters might finally be willing to overlook some imperfections if they believe you are the one candidate who can vanquish Hillary. Winning (or, for especially desperate voters, the perception that one can win) covers a multitude of sins.
But I also suspect there would be other positive externalities. You might begin to see Republican candidates subconsciously adopting a more positive and aggressive swagger, conservative activists and donors might also be more eager to open their hearts and wallets, and we might even begin to see more positive news coverage. Nothing succeeds like success. Poll numbers are sometimes self-fulfilling prophesies, and for a party suffering from an inferiority complex, an infusion of hope and momentum might just translate into more tangible results.