“I think my Uncle Bart might vote for him.” ) (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

It's the faintest possible praise.


It’s a weird, wriggling word held at arm’s length between forceps. To say it, twists your mouth into the slightest grimace.

Electability is one of those unmeasurable, oft-measured metrics. It’s what Bertie Wooster would call an indefinable thingness.

"For those who like that sort of thing," Abraham Lincoln once allegedly said, "that is exactly the sort of thing that they would like." That’s electability.

In theory, it means that people are willing to vote for you.

In practice, it means that people are willing to vote for you — in theory.

Mitt Romney, whose life consists of a long, painful-looking object lesson in the fact that there are some things money can’t buy, has been gradually honing in on this fact.

Everyone always called him “electable.”

He should have cultivated other words. “Severely conservative” doesn’t suit. “Businessman” isn’t quite in tune with the times. “Dog owner”? Don’t be stupid.

But better faint praise than no praise. A recent Public Policy Poll found even that rather sad pottage evaporating.

So much for the word that came to define his candidacy. But what did “electable” ever mean?

In South Carolina, it meant that Newt Gingrich, who has been described as “the most disliked politician in America” and “Bill Clinton?” could beat you by pointing out that “electable” is a meaningless term thrown around by the Mainstream Media to keep ourselves from dying of boredom in the long winter months between seasons of Downton. Everyone hates the Mainstream Media — the only thing more uniformly despised that springs to mind is Congress. So, before you knew it, everyone was stuffing his ballot into a box with Newt “Jabba The Hutt’s Long Lost Cousin” Gingrich's name on it, just to show them what was what.

From its use in practice lately, “electable” seems to mean that “after saturating a media market with something like 6 to 10 negative ads during every commercial break, people will pick you over Ron Paul by a narrow margin.”

He who throws mud loses ground, they say. But Romney, in a low-budget if ably coiffed production of Macbeth, seems to think that he is “in mud steeped so far/Returning were as tedious as go o'er.” Best way to win? Make everyone else seem unbearably unpalatable.

But that’s where the trouble with electability comes in.

To say that someone is electable means that you hope someone else will vote for him. In Iowa, everyone agreed that Romney was electable. So they voted for Santorum. It is the tragedy — if not of the commons, then definitely of the company Ropes Course and Trust Falls retreat.

Romney leans back. Someone else will catch him. The same someone else who will elect him.

A few seconds later, he goes crashing to the pavement.

I noted before of Romney that for a politician whose primary credential is supposed to be his electability, a startlingly small number of people seem willing to, well, vote for him themselves.

Those who do mainly get up and say something along the lines of what I heard from a man at a caucus in Perry, Iowa: he's not perfect, but it seems as though Other People will be willing to vote for him.

Who are these mysterious Other People? What are they thinking?

They seem to be thinking they'll vote for Santorum.

No one ever said of Rick Santorum that he was electable. They had other words, words that generally did not recommend themselves for inclusion in a family newspaper.

Dan Savage, creator of Santorum’s renowned Google Problem, may in fact have inoculated Santorum against any further criticism. There is nothing worse anyone can possibly say about him — and yet, he’s winning. Fling mud at him? Bring it. He's had worse things flung.

Anything, it turns out, is better that than “electable.”