I’ve only been able to catch snippets of last night’s GOP primary debate in Simi Valley, particularly Rick Perry’s double down on the “Social Security is a monstrous lie and a Ponzi scheme” argument. This has led to an interesting argument about electability and Presidential primaries. Some, like Nate Silver and Matt Yglesias, think that electability is a major factor, and that Perry hurt himself last night by signaling an attack on Social Security, which is a cherished benefit for the largest group of GOP primary voters, the elderly. Here’s a sample of the argument, from Silver.

Electability does matter to primary voters. Historically, parties have rarely nominated the most ideologically extreme candidates in their field. Yes, George McGovern and Barry Goldwater won — but they have been more the exceptions than the rule as compared with a host of others (Howard Dean, Pat Robertson, Jesse Jackson, Pat Buchanan, Jerry Brown) who lost.

In fact, Mr. Perry’s lead in the polls right now is based in part on perceptions that he is electable. The recent Washington Post / ABC News poll posed an interesting set of questions to Republican voters — asking them who they thought was closest to them on the issues, and who they thought was most able to defeat President Obama, in addition to their first overall choice.

Mr. Perry led the Republican field on each of the measures. But his lead was actually larger on the electability question: 30 percent of Republican voters said they thought he had the best chance of defeating Mr. Obama, versus 20 percent for Mr. Romney. By contrast, Mr. Perry held a smaller, 6-point lead over Mr. Romney on the question of his issue positioning […]

But back to the primaries: voters and parties are looking to calibrate these two objectives — picking a candidate who has a good shot at winning, and picking one who can be counted upon to advance their agenda. In a reasonably competitive field, failing either test will usually be disqualifying.

I don’t have the greatest read on the GOP electorate and I won’t pretend to have one. And I’m not saying that a frontal assault on Social Security WON’T hurt Perry among voters. But I will say a couple things. First of all, there’s an assumption that this is a reasonably competitive field. In fact, Perry has a large lead based on every major poll that has come out in the last three weeks. Yes, he’s soared rapidly and could fall rapidly; but he does have a decided advantage right now. In addition, I think Silver and Yglesias are basing their opinions on a conception of primary electorates that isn’t tailored to the modern GOP. Based on the historical readings of the 2010 election, the GOP should have taken the Senate. The only reason they didn’t take the Senate is that primary voters in Colorado and Delaware and Nevada (an early 2012 primary state) chose unelectable candidates in primaries, and they went on to lose in general elections. Electability was a part of those races, in some cases a central part. That didn’t matter.

You have a primary electorate who cheers at an invocation of Rick Perry executing over 200 prisoners in Texas. I just don’t think there’s a lot of game theory going on. Perry gives the GOP base another cowboy hero who pisses off liberals. That’s certainly good enough for their vote.

Plus, I would say that regardless of the nuances in the arguments, whoever the GOP nominee turns out to be will deliver pretty much the exact same agenda in 2012 and in a hypothetical Presidency, with little changes. It’s not like Mitt Romney is going to be some Bloombergian moderate in office; look at his immediate spending cap of over $400 billion in near-term cuts, based on his economic plan. Not only do all Republican candidates have the same plans, they’re going to use the same lies to justify those plans (by the way, how about NYT with this fact-check article?).

So I don’t see how electability plays into this at all. I suppose opinion leaders and cultural media forces could bias voters into thinking that one Republican can win where another cannot. But I see the GOP base as totally rejecting the opinions of opinion leaders and cultural media forces; in fact, based on the recent past it will send them screaming in the other direction.

One final postscript from the debate, highlighted by Kevin Drum. This is from Rick Perry:

The other thing this president’s done, he has proven for once and for all that government spending will not create one job. Keynesian policy and Keynesian theory is now done. We’ll never have to have that experiment on America again.

I fear this is totally true, because Democrats never explained or defended what they were trying to do with the economy in 2009, allowing Republicans to label it a failure and foreclose the option of any more stimulus spending. That Rick Perry’s “job miracle” is mostly based on a high rate of public sector growth is immaterial to this argument.

David Dayen

David Dayen