Tonight's GOP debate, to be broadcast on CNN, will almost certainly enjoy the type of record ratings generated by the previous debate on the Fox News Channel. The 11 candidates on the main stage will again have a potent opportunity to change how they are perceived by the Republican electorate -- one of the main purposes of these media events.
What follows are my nominations for challenges faced by specific candidates on a number of dimensions leading into the debate.
Most to Gain in Terms of Name Identification
The first debate worked significantly to the advantage of Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and John Kasich in terms of these candidates' name identification among Republicans. All three saw their familiarity move up by double-digit amounts after the debates, although Kasich has faded some in the minds of Republicans since that time.
Heading into the current debate, here's who has the most to gain in terms of basic familiarity among Republicans:
- Kasich remains an unfamiliar face to 56% of Republicans (based on the fact that this is the percentage who don't know enough to give him a positive or negative rating). As noted, he gained recognition after the previous debate, going from a 41% familiarity rating to as high as 51%, before dropping down to his current 44% (leaving 56% who can't rate him).
- Fiorina is still unknown to 47% of Republicans. Her familiarity had been as low as 35% prior to the first debate, some 18 percentage points lower than where it is today. But a comparison of her current 53% familiarity rating to the 93% familiarity rating enjoyed by Donald Trump shows just how far she has to go if she is to become a serious contender for her party's nomination.
- Scott Walker is unfamiliar to 44% of Republicans. Unlike Kasich and Fiorina, Walker's name identification has been fairly stable over the past several months.
Four other candidates are better known than those listed above, but each is still unfamiliar to 30% or more of Republicans, and therefore these candidates have room to grow on this dimension. This group includes Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Carson.
Those Who Need to Convert Unfavorable Image Dimension
Four candidates enter the debate with unfavorable images among 30% or more of Republicans, meaning that these candidates' main objectives will be to convert some of those who view them in a negative light today to the positive side of the image ledger. These four are, in descending order of unfavorable opinions:
- Chris Christie -- 36% unfavorable opinion among Republicans
- Jeb Bush -- 34%
- Donald Trump -- 34%
- Rand Paul -- 31%
Biggest Image Slide to Attempt to Stop
The dubious honor of having undergone the biggest slide since mid-July in terms of "power rankings" goes to Kentucky Sen. Paul. Power rankings are a composite score based on the percentage of Republicans who are familiar with the candidate, added to the percentage of those who are familiar and who have a positive opinion of the candidate. Thus a candidate does well in these power rankings if he or she is well-known and gets good marks from those who know him or her. A well-known candidate gets credit for name identification, but can lose credit if those who know the candidate have an unfavorable opinion.
Paul's power ranking in July, when Gallup began tracking the candidates, was 137, but has dropped to 121 today. (This is based on a major drop in Paul's favorable rating over that time, while his familiarity rating stayed the same). Other candidates whose power ranking dropped include Bush, Mike Huckabee and Rubio, all of whose power rankings dropped a total of five or six points since July. These slight drops are generally due to slightly lower favorable scores now than was the case in mid-July, even as the name identification scores of these candidates stayed the same or edged up.
Clearly then, the debate is critical for Paul as he and his campaign team try their hardest to come up with a way to shift the momentum back in his favor.
Biggest Momentum to Continue
The two candidates who improved the most in power rankings since mid-July are Carson and Fiorina, both of whom have seen rises in their familiarity among Republicans and also their favorable ratings among those who known them. Carson and Fiorina thus have a solid opportunity to take advantage of their positive momentum during tonight's debate. Kasich and Trump are third and fourth on the positive momentum list, having improved their power rankings by seven and three points, respectively.
Most Powerful Image on Stage as the Debate Opens
Overall, despite the well-publicized fact that Trump leads in various trial heat/horse race polls among Republicans, physician Carson will share with Trump the most powerful combination of favorable image and name identification among the candidates during tonight's debate. Carson's power ranking stands out because of his very high favorable rating despite the fact, as noted previously, that he is known to only 67% of Republicans. Trump's higher brand power is based on his near-universal name recognition among Republicans, but it's important to note that he has a weaker favorable score based on the fact that a relatively high percentage of those who know Trump view him unfavorably. After these two, Huckabee, Rubio, Cruz and Bush have the next-highest power ranking scores.
Least Powerful Image on Stage as the Debate Opens
Kasich and Paul have the lowest power rankings of any of the 11 candidates who will be on stage tonight.
Most Change Since First Debate
The accompanying graph displays the trajectory of net favorable scores (percent with a favorable opinion minus the percent with an unfavorable opinion) of the five candidates who have seen the most change since mid-July, for better or for worse. The graph shows that as the campaign has progressed, an increased differentiation has taken hold among these candidates -- with Carson, Fiorina and Trump improving their positions, while Bush's and, in particular, Paul's images have deteriorated. Worth noting is the fact that Trump's overall image among Republicans has been fading in recent days from his peak, which encompassed the last two weeks of August.