February 17, 2016
Even before there was an open Supreme Court seat to fight over, many voters were worried about electability. Several candidates argue their party should choose them because they can win in the fall. Two of those who make this claim most frequently are Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.
In any close election, Virginia is a factor. It’s the ultimate purple state, almost exactly matching the national spread in each of the past three elections. While either party can build a path to 270 without it, odds are the election winner takes Virginia too.
November is still a long way away. Candidates can improve their standing between now and then. There is some degree of rallying around the nominee once each party has one. At the same time, there’s also more time to run attack ads and tear them down further.
Christopher Newport University took an extensive poll in Virginia from February 3 to February 14. In addition to checking on candidate support for the March 1 primary, they asked voters how they feel about each candidate.
The favorability numbers were based on the entire electorate, not just those voting in the primary that candidate is running in. It’s a better proxy for what might happen in the fall than an indicator of who is best suited to win the primary.
As you might have figured, Donald Trump has some work to do. He’s minus 34, with only 5% of voters unsure. Virginians have taken his measure and for now, are not impressed to the tune of 30/64. It’s what Jeb is warning against.
There’s a catch. Jeb is 25/58 in the same survey. He’s got some unsure voters to possibly win over, but even if you throw all of them on the favorable side, it’s still ugly. Again, this is a state Republicans probably need to win.
Democrats are making an electability argument of their own. Hillary constantly says a vote for Bernie in the primaries is one step towards making President Trump possible. Sure, everybody loves Sanders now, but what happens when the GOP really goes after him?
Well, not everybody loves Bernie even now. He’s 39/50 in Virginia. Better than The Donald and Jeb, but not exactly on safe ground. If voters should get more skeptical going forward, he could find himself where his Democratic detractors fear.
At least he’s more popular than Ted Cruz, who checks in at 32/52, not that far above the Trump line. The Republicans who think Ted is November suicide have a small piece of evidence here. Visions of Cruz-Sanders are part of what makes Mike Bloomberg think he might have a chance.
Nobody asked Virginians about the ex-NYC mayor, but national surveys have shown him upside down too, albeit with a high percentage of voters without an opinion.
Of course, we know Hillary isn’t the most popular. In Virginia it’s particularly ugly, at 33/59. This means she joins Jeb and Trump at levels seen by George W. Bush post-Katrina, Richard Nixon at the depths of Watergate, and Jimmy Carter when the economy tanked with hostages still stuck in Iran after several months.
There are a couple of brighter spots. Marco Rubio isn’t just saying things when he brags about his electability. At 44/38 he’s the star of the show. Having said that, almost a fifth of voters aren’t sure about him yet, and the survey began before his New Hampshire debate mistake.
John Kasich is a bit of a blank slate. 28 favorable, 32 unfavorable, 39 not sure yet. If he can turn more than half of those who don’t know him well enough yet the right way, he’s potentially the most popular candidate in the running.
Lots of ifs. Not a single candidate is above 44% favorable. Several are at or over 50% unfavorable. Even Ben Carson, somebody voters like more than they support, is upside down at 38/45.
Again, voters will rally around their respective standard-bearers, but I get the sense this degree of negative favorability ratings is unprecedented. It’s very possible both sides have extended primary battles that are not resolved until California votes on June 7.
Republican campaigns are planning for a brokered convention if necessary. Somebody has to win, somebody will win, but for now, candidates talking about how unpopular or unelectable their opponents are should make sure to look in the mirror first.
We’re in uncharted negative territory. Any plea to go positive, to make sure not to injure the eventual nominee, is likely to fall on very deaf ears. Most of the candidates aren’t popular enough to win without tearing down their opponents.
If you know the opposing party candidates are unpopular, less need to worry your side has no chance in the fall. The battle over Scalia’s seat is just starting to get ugly. Wait until the confirmation hearings, or refusal to hold them.
Also, there’s a not insignificant chance the economy is in recession by summer or early fall. ISIS could attack or inspire attacks again, more successfully than Paris or San Bernardino.
Expect heavy turbulence under the best of circumstances.