2016 General Election, 2016 Republicans, Poll Watch

Poll Watch: Episode 10 (Who’s Electable?)

September 30, 2015

Electability is a big part of the Silent Primary, the part of the election cycle we are currently enjoying.  Few people pick a candidate they think has no chance of winning.  We take for granted that donors, endorsers and party activists feel this way, but so do voters.  Part of what makes a Flavor of the Month candidate stumble is the realization they aren’t a plausible nominee or general election contender.

It’s virtually impossible to prove a given candidate is a sure thing.  There’s always a historical example to the contrary, a current poll or three that would argue.  Any poll is a snapshot in time, candidates will get more or less popular with their core voters, their potential nominating coalition and swing voters as events change.

But we can still see who is looking more plausible, who the voters are at least open to right now.  Plus it’s always fun to compare the underlying polling data (OK, fun for me) to the narratives we’re hearing on a regular basis.  Is there strong evidence the conventional wisdom is wrong about something?  Who’s floating under the radar?

WARNING:

There’s no perfectly scientific way to do this.  Our focus today is on polling that covers the whole electorate, either nationally or in an individual state.  Polls of GOP or Democrat voters/leaners only are an outside reference point.  If you compare the two, you’ll notice Republicans like Jeb Bush more when comparing him to Democrats.

He isn’t super-popular with anyone.  However, when Republicans are asked favorable/unfavorable in the middle of a bunch of other GOP options, he struggles to break even.  When all voters were asked, Jeb was negative (32% to 48%), but not by as much as you would figure.  Do Democrats and Independents sorta like Jeb?  Maybe, unfortunately this particular USA Today/Suffolk poll doesn’t break it out.

More likely, Republican voters like him better when his name is mentioned after Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton than after Marco Rubio or Ben Carson.  In a pile of Republicans, it’s easy to fixate on his negatives.  Compared to Democrats, he may have flaws, but voters remember they would vote for him in the general.

So we need to attempt to separate the poll numbers from what they’re “really” saying with the knowledge that no two of them are taken at the same time with the same questions.  Most pollsters release a multi-page breakdown, but some are more complete than others.

Please take these caveats and provisos, file them in the back of your mind, and prepare yourself to assume the following conclusions are based on relatively sound analysis anyway.

Carly is For Real

We knew Carly Fiorina was a good debater.  Once she followed her undercard performance with the Trump Smackdown, a bit of attention was in the offing.  We didn’t know if her polling numbers would hold up.  We didn’t know how she would hang in under more scrutiny.  We didn’t know how non-GOP voters would respond to her combative, fairly partisan tone.  While many Republicans clearly want a fighter, is this a problem later?

Her numbers are holding.  The new USA Today/Suffolk survey has her at 13%, tied with Carson, trailing Trump.  In the post-debate period, she’s ranged between 11 and 15 percent, anywhere between virtually tied for second and roughly tied for third.  Carly has done about the same in state and national polls.  If Republicans were voting today, she’d get at least as much support as when the last debate ended.

Independent and/or moderate voters are at least open to her.  Multiple polls (NBC/WSJ and Quinnipiac) have Fiorina just ahead of Hillary in national head-to-head match ups.  As a point of comparison, those same polls had Hillary ahead of Trump by an average of 7 points.

At this point, underlying numbers are probably more important.  The ABC/WaPo poll found Independents +6 on Carly and Democrats only -9.  By comparison, Trump is -29 and -64.  USA Today/Suffolk didn’t do the same breakdown, but she has an overall +5 favorable rating, slightly better than Marco Rubio, much better than Jeb and Mike Huckabee, way, way better than Trump.

Any way you slice it, the wider electorate is at least willing to consider Carly.  She has a long way to go before the GOP governing and donor classes are ready to go all-in, but it’s wrong to assume she isn’t marketable next fall.

The primary concerns are lack of experience running a national campaign and HP baggage, more  specifically the ease Barbara Boxer had burying Fiorina with well executed attack ads in 2010.  I speculated yesterday that running a presidential campaign in 2015-16 gives her advantages she didn’t have in 2010, most specifically an easier time constructing her own narrative.

There are now wisps of evidence this is true.  Beyond asking voters how they felt about Carly, USA Today also asked about Planned Parenthood.  By a 65/28 margin, the same voters favorably disposed to her oppose de-funding.  She’s argued a government shutdown was justifiable as a matter of principle.  Voters disagree 82 to 17.

I’m not going to argue the average respondent has dutifully listened to each Fiorina public statement or interview.  However, her stance on this issue is well publicized, including the controversy over whether she lied/exaggerated/etc. while talking about live fetus harvesting during the debate.

Voters were asked to characterize Fiorina and Trump by choosing one of many descriptive options.  For The Donald, it was what you might expect, and not particularly positive.  Various versions of loud, blowhard, big ego, whatever.  The 7 most commonly chosen options were negative.

Fiorina’s responses were generally very favorable.  The most common response (10.2%) was “smart/intelligent/knowledgeable”.  Next was a group (5.6%) that doesn’t agree “dishonest/liar/untrustworthy”.  However, another (5.1%) find her “strong/tough”, followed by 4.6% with “favorable/ok/like”, so 80% of this is positive.  Hillary Clinton would kill for these results (USA Today will release her version tomorrow).

When Hillary was most popular, during her Secretary of State tenure, she benefitted from people who weren’t necessarily natural supporters thinking she was at least smart, tough and capable.  That’s where Carly is now.  For the past several days, liberal interest groups have tried to throw her off message, journalists have pressed her, but she’s hanging in.  So far, so good.

Trump is Not Going Away, Does Not Have a Path

As fun as it is to talk about the general election, primary polling gets most of the attention.  Another day, another poll (USA Today/Suffolk) another Trump lead.  He’s clearly down from his pre-debate peak, but he is staying above 20% and has led each post-debate GOP poll.

He’s still net-favorable with Republican voters, still more popular with them than Jeb.  If you hope Trump disappears soon, odds are you’ll find yourself disappointed.  The bubble doesn’t pop until he stops winning.

As strong as the evidence Trump will still matter when Iowa votes on February 1 is the data showing a nomination is unlikely.

First, he’s peaked.  Not only are his GOP numbers down from last month, including first choice, second choice and favorability margin, but his general election numbers are down too.

A month ago he was tied or slightly trailing Hillary nationwide and ahead in key states.  She’s had a rough month and he regularly trails her now.

Instead of doing roughly as well against her as his competitors, there’s now a noticeable negative gap.  For Trump partisans this makes zero difference.  It’s not going to cost him core support.

To win Iowa he may need some voters who would also consider Carson or Fiorina.  To win the nomination, he’ll need most of them. Those voters won’t choose Jeb if they think he’s more electable, they might even pass on Rubio.  They will accept a more popular outsider.

Trump’s August numbers were not good enough to win a nomination or general election.  But they were trending the right way, up noticeably from July.  One more similar leap would have left him in striking distance for both.

Now he’s back to where he was 60 days ago.  He would require two large jumps to make it.  Not impossible, but extremely unlikely.

But Carson and Fiorina are well ahead of where they were.  Voters wanting a never-elected candidate, be they Republican primary voters or general election voters now have credible alternatives.

While USA Today shows

Trump 23

Carson 13

Fiorina 13

adding second choices results in the following

Carson 35

Fiorina 29

Trump 29

Before Trump can make the case that he’s a better idea than a traditional candidate, he needs to get past these two.  If no establishment candidate can rally the party and win over enough solid conservatives, there are compromise points that skip The Donald.

Voters need not choose between selling out or facing certain doom, at least not based on current polls.

Rubio on Track

Marco Rubio wants to make progress.  Marco Rubio wants to peak at the last possible moment.  Marco Rubio is right where he wants to be.

He remains widely popular with GOP voters. With the wider electorate, only Carson has higher favorability margins.  Only Carson is doing a little better in head-to-head match ups.  Among establishment-certified candidates, Rubio is best positioned.

It appears he’s retaining a bit more support two weeks out from the debate than he did last time, though less than Fiorina.  Carly has stayed in the news more than Marco, though Rubio’s visibility is higher than it was a month ago.

The two candidates have different objectives and it seems both are following their scripts and each have chosen a path wisely.  Unlike Jeb who has no positive evidence, Rubio has no negative data.

He’s far from a sure thing, but remains positioned very well.  Most candidates would happily trade places.

Jeb Has Nothing to Brag About

There is not a single data point that makes him look good.  Bush is edging up to 8 or 9 percent in recent surveys, he even pulled 13% several days ago.  But he’s still in 5th behind Trump, Carson, Fiorina and Rubio in weighted averages.  He’s still doing worse in Iowa and New Hampshire than nationally.  Adding in second choices doesn’t help.

He’s less popular with Republicans than anyone else in the Top 6.  Only Trump is less popular with the general electorate or consistently does worse matched up against Hillary, Biden and Sanders.  Rubio is even with or ahead of Jeb in GOP polling (usually ahead), despite spending way less money and getting much less exposure.

He’s ahead with the wider electorate.  Convincing voters not to take a chance on an outsider is useless if Rubio leads him everywhere.

No Data on Lower Tiers

We don’t know how much more acceptable non-Republicans find Ted Cruz than Donald Trump (if at all).  We don’t know if John Kasich or Chris Christie are significantly more electable versions of Jeb Bush.  Pollsters normally limit these questions to candidates consistently polling in the Top 3, maybe 5, if you are considered a more likely nominee.

This creates a nasty Catch-22.  Voters or donors might prefer Cruz as a more marketable alternate to Trump.  Perhaps Kasich could argue he is what they hoped Jeb was.  Without the evidence, it’s hard to make the case.  Without more exposure, they aren’t a survey question.

Voters Are Most Open to Carson

Pundits and GOP insiders are not ready to take Dr. Carson seriously yet.  He’s not a good debater (at least with 10 people on stage).  He’s never run for public office.  He says things insiders prefer not become an issue (like not wanting to vote for a hypothetical Muslim presidential candidate).  He doesn’t follow party orthodoxy on taxes, foreign policy, or much of anything.

All very, very logical.  Consider the following though.

Carson is the most popular Republican in every GOP-only survey.  His favorable rating is the highest in each state, it’s the highest nationally.  The ABC/WaPo survey of all voters finds him most popular with very conservative voters and somewhat conservative voters, but also +9 with moderates and only -9 with self-described liberals.  Overall, he’s +18 in a survey where Trump is -25.

The USA Today poll without the breakouts has Carson ahead of any other Republican at +9.  Need to wait for Democratic candidate numbers tomorrow, but am certain he’s ahead of Hillary and Bernie Sanders and probably a little ahead or even with Joe Biden.  Biden will have higher favorables, Carson lower unfavorables.  He has the lowest unfavorables of any leading candidate, with 70% of voters either favorable or unsure.

In recent head-to-head match ups against Clinton or Biden, Carson is ahead in many and no worse than tied in any.  He usually does better, often significantly than his GOP peers, and never does worse.  Again, 13+ months away from the general election, this guarantees nothing, but it clearly shows a willingness to consider this unusual option.

ABC/WaPo breakouts show Carson with favorable ratings among men and women, running 2:1 positive with white voters and only -2 with non-white voters.  He’s slightly ahead with Hispanic voters and only 26% don’t like him (almost half are undecided/unsure).  50% of black voters are opposed, which is both not good for an African-American candidate and wonderful for a Republican.

Meanwhile, almost as many respondents said they wouldn’t vote for a Muslim presidential candidate than would (similar to how the public feels about atheists).  They did not ask the question with Carson’s distinction, that he would consider doing so if they expressly refuted Sharia law and other tenets of Islam.  Guessing here, but with that distinction, I’d bet 2/3 of the country agrees.

Beyond helping Carson with some of his base, the Muslim “controversy” hasn’t done any irreparable damage with mainstream voters.  Respectable Republicans, journalists and pundits hate talking about this stuff, because it’s so easy to say the wrong thing and stir up a hornet’s nest.  Serious candidates are supposed to know better and keep themselves out of trouble.

There’s just no evidence yet that voters who will or could vote Republican agree.  Meanwhile, while Trump still leads among GOP primary voters, when you include second choice, Carson is always even or ahead.  He’s the outsider with the best chance (as of today) of winning primary pluralities.

DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE CARSON.

If you’re curious about the Democrats, I am too.  Still waiting on Biden to make some decisions, but I may have some comments anyway when USA Today/Suffolk data is out on them tomorrow.

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