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Many GOP voters say they're more focused on candidates' values than electability

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In 2020, Democratic voters were obsessed with nominating a presidential candidate who was electable, someone who could defeat Donald Trump. This year Republican voters want to defeat Joe Biden, and many say electability isn't a big factor for them. Danielle Kurtzleben asked Iowans and New Hampshirites why.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: It's no surprise that Peggy Hutchison planned to caucus for Trump. She showed up to a Trump rally the day before the Iowa caucuses in bitterly cold weather. She was wearing a Trump T-shirt. She said she's been to eight Trump rallies, and...

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PEGGY HUTCHISON: I was at January 6 also, but I didn't go in (laughter). So...

KURTZLEBEN: You were there.

HUTCHISON: I was there.

KURTZLEBEN: What was it like?

HUTCHISON: I left when I could tell it was getting out of hand (laughter).

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KURTZLEBEN: She had gone to a couple of other Republicans' events, but she decided on Trump. I asked why.

HUTCHISON: His platform or what he stands for is - I haven't heard anything that he stands for that I don't stand for, so yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: One thing she didn't mention - electability. In fact, she told me that didn't really play into her decision. That's common among Republicans. Pollsters found that only 14% of Iowa GOP caucus-goers said a candidate's ability to defeat Biden was their top factor in choosing. Meanwhile, 41% did what Peggy did. They chose someone who shared their values. Hutchison does believe Trump would defeat Biden, but then again, she even thinks Nikki Haley could also win, and she isn't a fan of Haley.

HUTCHISON: She could beat him, but she's not going to be the nominee.

KURTZLEBEN: None of this is new among Republicans, says Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University. But he puts it differently than using the word electability.

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MATT GROSSMANN: Republicans do not perceive a trade-off between rallying the base and winning a general election, whereas Democrats do perceive that trade-off. That consistent difference goes back a long way.

KURTZLEBEN: One possible reason why, Grossmann said, is that Republicans correctly perceive America's conservative bent. More Americans consider themselves conservative than liberal. But Grossmann adds that the cause and effect of electability is complicated.

GROSSMANN: The candidate that you support influences who you think is electable, so most people will choose their candidate and then say that candidate is more electable.

KURTZLEBEN: One other factor is that many Republicans see Joe Biden as a particularly weak candidate, so they don't need to worry about electability. It is true that Biden is unpopular. His net approval is at around -16 points, but he's not at all sure to lose. Many polls show Trump and Biden about even with each other or Trump with a slight advantage. It's also unclear whether voters prefer Haley or Biden. Still, electability is a major part of Haley's pitch to voters, and unsurprisingly, some of her voters do care about it. Barbara Grieb saw Haley in Rochester, N.H.

BARBARA GRIEB: First of all, she's a woman. And I think that even Democrats - women Democrats - are ready for a woman in the White House. And I think that she's pretty common sense.

KURTZLEBEN: The way she games out how other voters are thinking sounds a lot like Democrats in 2020.

GRIEB: A win's important. And I think that's why I am eliminating President Trump - because I just don't think he's got the likability, obviously, from Democrats.

KURTZLEBEN: But there's something deeply complicated in how Trump voters think about electability this year. Pat McGee went out to see Trump in Portsmouth. She explained why she will be voting for him.

PAT MCGEE: He knows what to do, and he knows who to do it to.

KURTZLEBEN: What do you mean what to do?

MCGEE: He knows which people to trust and which people are RINOs, which people to pick that would be in his, you know, cabinet and support.

KURTZLEBEN: McGee wasn't thinking about electability. But she is optimistic about Trump's chances.

How confident are you that he - if he's the nominee - that he could defeat Biden?

MCGEE: He will.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

MCGEE: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: He did lose in 2020. You're making a face.

MCGEE: He didn't lose.

KURTZLEBEN: To the degree that Trump voters think he's electable, that perception is fueled by Trump's lie that he won the 2020 election. Convince voters you've never lost, and you might sound like the most electable candidate around. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News, Manchester, N.H.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLIE EILISH SONG, "ALL THE GOOD GIRLS GO TO HELL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Danielle Kurtzleben
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.