WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee are easily the most popular presidential candidates with Republicans who describe their political ideology as "very conservative." Cruz, enjoying a net favorable score of +76 with this segment of the GOP, is slightly ahead of Carson (+72) and Huckabee (+67). All three candidates are well ahead of the rest of the Republican field, suggesting they hold a distinct advantage over their rivals with this historically politically active constituency.
The overwhelming popularity Cruz, Carson and Huckabee enjoy with very conservative Republicans hardly classifies as a political mystery -- they are among the most conservative and ideological candidates in the field. All three present themselves as Washington outsiders (even if Cruz is currently a member of the Senate), deeply religious and imbued with a socially conservative outlook. These commonalities help explain why these candidates appear to share the same political strategy: winning the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, a contest that has over the last two political cycles tended to favor candidates on the right end of the political spectrum. Huckabee won this contest in his 2008 presidential run.
Marco Rubio, Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina represent what might be called the "second tier" of very conservative Republicans' popularity rankings. Rubio leads with a net favorable score of +55, while Trump and Fiorina are essentially tied -- with net favorable scores of +40 and +38, respectively. The three presidential contenders often characterized as hailing from the "establishment" wing of the Republican Party -- Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and John Kasich -- find themselves relegated to the final rung of these rankings. Christie and Bush both hold a mildly positive score (+14 for Christie and +6 for Bush), while Kasich is underwater at -8.
Conservative Republicans -- who make up nearly half of the party -- and very conservative Republicans (who make up 19%) assess the presidential field along similar lines, though the former tend to be less positive on the candidates. Cruz and Carson receive a net favorable score about 15 points lower among conservatives, but that still puts them at the front of the presidential pack. Rubio is about as well-liked by conservatives as he is by those who are very conservative, and his net favorable score of +49 vaults him into a tie for third place with Huckabee.
Huckabee, meanwhile, sees a nearly 20-point drop in his net favorable score between the very conservative and the conservative, the greatest change between the two groups. Fiorina registers a +37, similar to how very conservative Republicans view her, while Trump is slightly less popular with "regular" conservatives than he is with those who are very conservative. The mainstream candidates Christie, Bush and Kasich again find themselves at the bottom of the list, but all three register far higher levels of popularity with conservative Republicans than they do with very conservative ones.
Finally, the 31% of Republicans who describe their ideology as "moderate" or "liberal" give Rubio top billing in the popularity standings, though his net favorable score of +30 is lower in absolute terms with this part of the GOP than it is with conservative or very conservative Republicans. In general, moderate/liberal Republicans tend to hold less favorable views of all Republican candidates, because moderate/liberal Republicans are less familiar with the field than are the other two ideological camps of the party.
Cruz, Fiorina and Christie See Biggest Gains Among Very Conservative Republicans
Since Gallup began tracking presidential candidates' images in July, several candidates have seen their favorable ratings rise among very conservative Republicans. Though the two occupy nearly polar opposite positions in terms of their comparative popularity with very conservative Republicans, Cruz and Christie have seen their favorables improve the most in this group. For both men, their December favorable rating is 19 points higher than where it stood in July. (January aggregate ratings are omitted because of sample size considerations.)
Fiorina is a close third, as her favorable rating has improved by 17 points over the same period. Crucially, though, only Cruz still appears to have upward momentum among these three candidates; his favorable rating increased by nine points from November to December, while Christie's fell by seven over that time. Fiorina saw her rating plateau in the final months of the year, at around 60%.
Taken together, these findings seem to suggest Cruz is in a strong position to do well with the very conservative wing of the Republican Party, a portion of the GOP base that is more likely to show up at the primary polls. Very conservative Republicans like him at higher rates than the rest of the field and, moreover, his favorable rating is still improving at this stage of the campaign. These are good signs for a once-long-shot candidate who now can be considered one of the race's front-runners.
Historical data are available in Gallup Analytics.