Donald Trump will be standing at the high-status middle podium at tonight's GOP debate in Milwaukee, but he will do so with an image among Republicans that is almost as low as it has been since we began tracking the candidates in July.
Trump certainly doesn't have to worry about his name identification. He was familiar to 92% of Republicans when we began tracking in July, and is familiar to 94% today -- putting him in the same name identification territory as Hillary Clinton. But Trump has significant image problems. His 55% favorable rating among Republicans is actually fairly high, and close to Ben Carson's as we shall see presently. But, whereas most of the Republicans who don't view Carson favorably simply say they don't have an opinion of him at all, most of those who are not favorable about Trump indicate they have an unfavorable opinion of him. To be specific, 39% view Trump unfavorably, the highest such number of any candidate we are tracking. Putting the favorable and the unfavorable percentages together computes to a net favorable score of 16 for Trump, less than a third of Carson's net favorable rating, and one of the lowest of any candidate who will be on the debate stage tonight.
Trump's image has waxed and waned during the campaign. At one point, in late August/early September, his net favorable score reached as high as 33, more than twice where it is today. His current 16 is within a couple of points of the lowest we have measured for Trump. Of the eight candidates on the main stage -- Trump, Carson, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul and John Kasich -- only Kasich has a worse image among the candidates we track (we are not tracking Paul at this point, but when we last did his net favorable rating was 11).
It's no surprise that Carson will be going into Tuesday night's debate with what is, by far, the most positive image among Republicans -- taking into account both those who have a favorable and an unfavorable opinion. I say "no surprise," because Carson has long held onto the "most liked" position.
Carson has clearly benefited more than anyone else from the debate season so far. In late July/early August, Carson was familiar to only 47% of Republicans and had a net favorable score of 35. Now, after three debates and a great deal of media focus, his familiarity score in the two weeks ending Nov. 8 is up to 73%, and his net favorable score is at 57, based on the 65% of Republicans who have a favorable opinion of him and 8% who have an unfavorable view. This 8% is the lowest negative rating of any candidate.
Carson has come under more intense media scrutiny in recent days as news entities raise questions relating to biographical details he has published and discussed previously. In fact, his net favorable score is down slightly now from where it has been, but it is too early to see if this is the beginning of a trend or not. Of course, his performance in the Milwaukee debate tonight may have an impact on that as well.
Bush is the second best-known candidate among Republicans, but despite his being the scion of one of the most famous political families in the nation, his 82% familiarity score is 12 percentage points lower than Trump's. Almost one in five Republicans say they don't know enough about Bush to rate him.
Bush, like Trump, is saddled with a high percent of unfavorable views. Forty-nine percent of Republicans have a favorable view of the former Florida governor, but 33% have an unfavorable opinion, and the resulting net favorable score of 16 ties him with Trump, way behind most other candidates with whom he will be sharing the stage in Milwaukee. Bush's current net favorable score is a little better than the 11 to which he fell in late September, but down from earlier in the summer when, at one point, he was at 28.
Other candidates? Fiorina has seen a lot of change. Her familiarity went from as low as 35% to as high as 67% after strong debate performances, but she has been relatively out of the news in recent weeks and her familiarity score has dropped to 58%. In similar fashion, Fiorina's net favorable score went from 14 to 40, but is now settled down to 28.
Two other candidates -- Rubio and Cruz -- currently have very similar profiles among Republicans. Both are familiar to about seven in 10 Republicans, and Rubio's net favorable score of 41 is similar to Cruz's 38. Rubio's current 41 net favorable score is almost exactly the same as the 42 recorded when we began tracking, although it has been up and down a little in the weeks between those points, as we would expect. Cruz's current net favorable score is 38 compared with 34 in July, although he dropped as low as 28 in October.
The debates certainly can make a difference in how Republicans see the candidates. Carson and Fiorina are the best examples of this, with the former, for the moment, hanging on to the positive image he has grown since July, while the latter's image has slipped some. Bush's biggest issue has been his inability to move his image in a positive direction. Trump's has been his inability to reduce the percentage of Republicans who view him negatively. Rubio and Cruz have maintained a relatively even profile over the course of the debates so far, which is not bad given that both are behind only Carson in terms of their overall net favorable score among Republicans. Each debate brings with it the prospect of some major event, either positive or negative, that could disrupt the way rank-and-file Republicans view the candidates and shift the overall structure of the race, which is one of the reasons so many people seem to enjoy watching them.