Is Rick Perry smart enough to be president? I have no idea. But I do know one thing: the people who should figure it out are Republicans who care about their party, and they should do it not because of the general election – it likely doesn’t matter – but because a party has a strong interest in not electing a bad president.
The first point is that it’s highly unlikely that a nominee’s stupidity would make much of a difference in a presidential general election campaign. The truth is that candidates just don’t matter that much at all; most voters choose on the basis of party and how they believe the incumbent is handling the job (which in turn is largely, although certainly not completely, about economic performance). Even the sliver of voting that can be driven by campaigns and candidates is unlikely to have much to do with the candidates themselves, because during the fall campaign there is relatively little exposure to the reality of those candidates. Virtually anyone can be trained to perform reasonably well at giving speeches, getting through televised debates, and other general election candidate chores – and those who can’t are winnowed out long before the conventions.
However, the ability to actually do a good job in the White House varies considerably, and certainly does make quite a difference. In particular, party actors – politicians, campaign and governing professionals, and even activists – have a strong incentive for choosing someone who will have strong presidential skills. That’s true whether their interests are in their own careers, or in their preferences about public policy, or some combination of both. Consider the worst two presidents over the last thirty-five years, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. In both cases, party priorities – and quite a few political careers – were severely damaged by having a failed president in the Oval Office.
Certainly, party actors should care about whether a nominee is so far from the mainstream that she might well cost the party the election, and they should also care quite a bit about whether the nominee is trustworthy. But on top of that, what they really should be concerned with is whether the candidates appear to have the skills that it takes to be a good president. That’s where the stakes are highest.