Sunday, January 07, 2007

Pres08: New CBS Poll on Favorability

John McCain and Rudy Giuliani lead the Republican field by a wide margin in terms of the balance of "favorable" and "unfavorable" impressions the public holds of them. On the Democratic side, Hilary Clinton and John Edwards lead the field, while Barack Obama has a net favorable image but with many voters still unable to express a reaction to him. Other candidates either remain near complete unknowns or suffer from net negative evaluations from voters in the cases of Al Gore and John Kerry.

The new CBS News poll taken 1/1-3/07 gives the latest comprehensive look at 2008 presidential contestants. The survey included the standard favorable/unfavorable question, which includes "undecided" and "haven't heard of" options as well. The data here are for all adults, not just partisans of the candidate's party.

The graph above plots favorable impressions on the horizontal and unfavorable views on the vertical axis. The sum of favorable and unfavorable cannot exceed 100%, so the data must fall in the triangle with the grid lines. The darker diagonal line from (0,0) to (50,50) marks the region of more net negative evaluations (above this line and and to the left) versus the region of net positive evaluations (below and to the right.) While some enemies are inevitable, candidates would rather be closer to the bottom right corner of the figure, with high net positive ratings. The closer a candidate is to the lower left corner the more voters failed to give a favorable OR an unfavorable evaluation. For the lesser known candidates, this is dramatic as they all cluster very near the bottom left corner.

A number of people have quite correctly pointed out that current polling on presidential candidates is largely a function of name recognition and national visibility, as the performances of well known candidates Clinton, Giuliani and McCain demonstrate. The polls may also not be very meaningful predictors of future success. A classic example is from April 1991, when Bill Clinton scored 8% favorable, 12% unfavorable and 80% unable to give any impression of him. That places him solidly in the company of Romney, Richardson, Brownback and Hagel. Of course that didn't stop him from gaining the nomination.

So we should certainly not look at these data as predictions of who is "destined" to win or lose. That is not my purpose here. We have a year to watch the evolution of support for these candidates. And to do that, of course, we have to look at how they stand throughout this year. Which front runners will stumble and when? Which unknowns will build a following to emerge from national obscurity to serious contention? These data are crucial for understanding that process, and that is my purpose here, rather than a simple minded (and empirically weak) implication that those currently ahead are "inevitable." It is hard for reporting or analysis to avoid emphasizing the current strengths of candidates, but experience shows that this can change substantially over time. Recall the "inevitable" triumph of Howard Dean as seen in November 2003 when discussion actually surfaced of his vice-presidential choice! We would all, me included, be well advised to treat these data as dynamic and not as fixed for the next 12-15 months. But dynamic data is fun! So let's start watching it.

The cluster of Giuliani, McCain and Edwards represents a group with about a 2-1 favorable-unfavorable ratio, suggesting pretty broad appeal. But even among this group around 40% of voters are unable to express an evaluation.

In contrast, Hilary Clinton holds slightly higher favorable ratings but also nearly twice as high unfavorable ratings, putting her only slightly to the "good" side of the favorable-unfavorable divide. Her higher evaluation rate of 80% is no surprise but with only 20% of voters yet to decide about her there is less room for new support or opposition to develop, while the Giuliani, McCain and Edwards grouping can move rather substantially from voters making up their minds.

Senator Barack Obama trails these four substantially in the number of voters able to evaluate him, though he has the advantage of a 3-1 favorability ratio among those who do rate him. Over 70% of the sample were unable to rate him, which shows how far the Senator has to go in establishing himself with the public, despite the dramatic media coverage of him in the last quarter of 2006.

The two defeated past Democratic nominees fare less well. Al Gore and John Kerry both suffer from more unfavorable than favorable ratings. In Gore's case, this comes despite positive public comment on his movie "An inconvenient truth" which was thought by some to be his route back to elective office.

Among the less well known candidates there is little meaningful variation at this point. Almost all draw slightly more unfavorable than favorable evaluations, but with something on the order of 80% unable to rate these choices there is little to suggest the favorable-unfavorable ratio means much. Also, the CBS poll question does not supply either party or current office, so voters are left with little to base spur of the moment opinions on. A question about "Democrat Tom Vilsack, former Governor of Iowa" or "Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas" might trigger more impressions than the simple "Tom Vilsack" and "Sam Brownback" used in the survey. The question CBS used probably does a better job of avoiding partisan projection and therefore is a better measure of awareness than one that described the candidates. On the other hand, many voters are so peripherally aware of these candidates that a little help remembering who is who can trigger real as well as top of the head opinions.

One seeming peculiarity is the rate of non-response to even the well known candidates. Clinton has been in the national spotlight for 14 years and Kerry and Gore have both been nominees of their party, yet 19% failed to express an opinion of Clinton as did 22% for Gore and 30% for Kerry. Are voters REALLY so removed from politics that more than one in five really don't recognize these candidates? Well, not quite. The survey gave voters an "undecided" option as well as a "haven't heard enough about the candidate to have an opinion" option. Those two are folded together in my figure above and in most analysts review of these sort of survey questions, but it turns out the distinction is pretty interesting.

The figure below compares the rate of "undecided" with the rate of "don't know enough" for all the candidates. A clear and substantial divide separates the candidates. Long time presidential contenders Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Edwards, Giuliani and McCain are not very likely to draw a "don't know enough" response. In fact, less than 20% (and in the cases of Clinton, Gore and Kerry well under 10%) of the public actually says they haven't heard enough to have an opinion. Among this group of candidates, most of the failure to rate a candidate is due to choosing the "undecided" option. While one might think of that as lack of knowledge, this result suggests that genuine ambivalence about candidates is part of the story as well. For these most prominent candidates, ambivalence outweighs lack of knowledge.

For the less well known candidates, the reverse is dramatically clear. The candidates in the lower left corner of the top figure are all much more likely to suffer from voter ignorance than ambivalence. Upwards of 70% say they don't know enough about most of these, with only about 10% expressing ambivalence. Richardson and Biden are a little more likely to be known but also more likely to draw an "undecided" response.

This plot also shows that Barack Obama remains more in the company of these less visible candidates than in the company of the best known six. His "don't know enough" rate remains near 50% with only modest indecision. It will be interesting to see what trajectory each of these candidates take over the next months as they become better known. Obama has enjoyed the first burst of coverage that emergent candidates can ride to national prominence. But he clearly has a long way to go to catch up with the top tier of candidates.

So far I've focused on the perceptions of the national sample of adults as a whole. What about within their party, which is the crucial issue for nomination, of course. The CBS poll provides a very helpful breakdown of reaction by party, allowing us to look at how partisanship affects these favorable or unfavorable impressions of candidates. For nominations questions, we can focus on the candidate's party. But an extra bonus is that the party breakdown also allows us to look at how polarizing each candidate is.

In the figure below a red dot represents Republican respondents, blue for Democrats and purple for independents. The black dot is for the population as a whole. In several of the plots the total and the independent points overlap, showing only the black for the total population. As above, the horizontal axis is favorable and the vertical axis is unfavorable.

The most striking, if not surprising, result is that Hillary Clinton is indeed the most polarizing figure in the field. Her favorable-unfavorable ratio among Democrats is 72-11, while among Republicans it is 9-78. Independents split a bit to the positive side, 41-33. The population split is 43-38. It is a stable of analysis of Clinton that she must win despite the near monolithic opposition among Republicans and win a narrow majority by combining equally monolithic Democratic support with a small margin among independents. So far that story is well supported by the evidence. It is also worth noting that 15% of Democrats they they are undecided about her, as do 23% of independents. That ambivalence seems to remain her vulnerability.

Previous Democratic nominees Gore and Kerry are almost equally disliked among Republicans, but nether enjoys close to the support Clinton has among Democrats.

John Edwards falls short of Clinton's support among Dems, but he also draws less negativity from Republicans and does slightly better among independents.

Barack Obama appeals to independents nearly as well as he does to Democrats, a potential substantial advantage, while Republicans are only a slightly net negative about him. However, the high inability to rate Obama makes this comparison a limited one. As he emerges it will be interesting to see if he can continue to win independents so well and how much Republican's learn to dislike him.

No other Democrat is well known enough to make analysis of these data profitable. All need a substantial gain in visibility before distinctions such as these will be meaningful. This includes 2004 candidate Dennis Kucinich who is rated about the same as Chris Dodd.

On the Republican side, McCain remains the strongest candidate in gaining favorable ratings from outside the Republican camp. But he also fall short of Giuliani in favorable-unfavorable ratio WITHIN the Republican party. McCain gains a 48-10 favorable-unfavorable rating among Republicans, but Giuliani's is 63-9. Both draw about equally among independents and McCain does better among Democrats.

These data illustrate the dilemma many analysts have pointed out: Giuliani is leading most of the polls taken among Republicans. But analysts wonder how many Republicans know about his positions on many social issues that differ from those of the core of Republican partisans. These analysts dismiss the polling, saying that as voters learn more, Republicans will turn away from Giuliani. This leads them to conclude Giuliani is unlikely to be able to win the nomination. At the same time, McCain has not yet become the favorite candidate among Republicans, and especially among the conservative base which has spent years castigating McCain for not being conservative enough. The fragility of both of these candidacies is apparent in these data.

But then who? These data clearly show that none of the other candidates has yet gained enough recognition to be considered a likely challenger for supremacy. Romney remains quite low in favorable ratings among Republicans, despite a significant amount of media coverage. Likewise Brownback. And Hagel and Hunter barely register. (My own former Governor, Tommy Thompson, didn't make CBS's candidate list.)

As I said at the start, the danger of these polls is that they reinforce the status quo without a sense of how things can change. It is entirely likely that some candidate not currently in the top tier will emerge as a substantial challenger before the nomination is won. We just don't know who from these data.

We can get a taste of very early dynamics by looking at change in favorability over time. The CBS poll provided earlier ratings for eight candidates. Most of these are from summer or early fall of 2006, but some are much older. Each panel of the figure below gives the base date from which change is measured. The arrow points from the earlier to the current poll.

On the Democratic side, Clinton gained about 10 points on the favorable side, while adding only a couple of unfavorable points since September. This was enough to push her from a net rating that was slightly negative to one that was net slightly positive.

Edwards was a near-mirror image of this. He gained little favorability, but reduced his unfavorable rating by 10 points, giving him a significantly improved net rating, from slightly net positive to significantly more positive.

Both Kerry and Gore moved the wrong direction, becoming more net negative than they started, though both were already negative on balance. Finally, Biden and Kucinich show small movements but against bases well in the past (20 years in Biden's case!)

Only McCain and Giuliani are available for the Republican trends. McCain gained over 10 points of favorable ratings, at the cost of about 5 more points of negative rating. This improved his position a bit.

The Giuliani comparison is quite negative, but that is surely due to the over two year old base from 2004. His movement in other polls has been substantially positive. See the analysis of Marist Poll trends for Giuliani (and others) here.

As the winter and spring develop, I'll revisit these data, adding dynamics that I hope will tell the story of who emerges, who fades and how the 2008 nomination battle shapes up.