- Net favorables near +40 for 2016 leaders comparably low
- George W. Bush, Elizabeth Dole had +80 scores in 2000
- Current field less well-known than prior GOP fields
PRINCETON, N.J. -- Mike Huckabee (+40) and Marco Rubio (+39) edge out several other Republicans in their net favorable ratings -- the percentage of Republicans who view each favorably minus the percentage who view each unfavorably. But their scores pale in comparison with those for George W. Bush (+85) and Elizabeth Dole (+84) early in the 2000 campaign, and for Rudy Giuliani (+63) at the outset of the 2008 campaign. Bob Dole (+55) also had a higher net favorable rating at the beginning of the 1996 campaign.
Underscoring the relative weakness of the potential 2016 crop of Republican candidates compared with their forerunners in prior campaigns, the candidates with the best scores at this early stage of the 2016 campaign would rank as only third best among the 2008 field, behind Giuliani and eventual nominee John McCain, and as fourth best in the 2000 campaign behind Bush, Dole and Steve Forbes.
Gallup has measured Americans' opinions of presidential candidates since 1992, including favorable and unfavorable ratings for the major Republican contenders in February or March of the year before the 1996, 2000 and 2008 nomination campaigns. The latter two, like the forthcoming 2016 campaign, did not include an incumbent president seeking re-election in either party. Gallup tracked the images of the 2012 Republican candidates but did so in a different question format that does not allow for direct comparisons to the current scores.
The most recent results for potential GOP contenders are based on a March 2-4 Gallup poll. This piece compares just the four most positively rated candidates today relative to the major contenders in past primaries. The data on all 11 potential 2016 candidates included in the early March poll can be found here.
2016 GOP Candidates Held Back by Lower Familiarity
A major factor in potential 2016 candidates' historically weaker net favorable ratings is that none among this group of candidates is as well-known as the early front-runners in the past. Jeb Bush is the best known of the potential 2016 GOP candidates, with 76% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents familiar enough with Bush to have an opinion of him. In past primaries, several candidates have enjoyed a familiarity rating of higher than four of every five Republicans. For example, Elizabeth Dole was familiar to 92% of Republicans and George W. Bush to 91% at a similar stage of the 2000 campaign.
Rubio and Scott Walker currently have very low familiarity scores, comparable to those of McCain in the 2000 campaign and Mitt Romney in the 2008 campaign. Both McCain and Romney emerged as key contenders in those campaigns, but ultimately came up short for the nomination. However, their strong performances set them up for a run in the next presidential election, with McCain winning the 2008 GOP nomination and Romney the 2012 nomination.
From a candidate perspective, being unknown is better than being unpopular. Right now, being unknown is the greater challenge for Walker and Rubio, with roughly half of the party rank-and-file unfamiliar with them. Currently, only 8% of Republicans have an unfavorable opinion of Rubio, and 5% have an unfavorable opinion of Walker. The tendency will be for their favorable ratings among Republicans to increase as they become better known, but their unfavorable ratings should increase at least slightly as well. To the extent each can minimize the increase in negative opinions and maximize the increase in positive opinions as they become better known, it is possible their popularity could rise to approach that of some of the GOP front-runners in past campaigns.
Although they are by no means unpopular with the GOP base, the better-known Jeb Bush (20%) and Huckabee (16%) do have higher unfavorable ratings among Republicans than most other contenders. Bush and Huckabee still have work to do to become better known among the GOP base, but also would need to work to reduce their unfavorable ratings, or at least keep them from swelling. Both, however, can take heart from McCain's winning the 2008 Republican nomination after beginning the campaign with a 21% unfavorable rating among Republicans.
The 2016 Republican nomination contest is shaping up to be different than the Democratic contest. Republicans will be sorting through a large number of less well-known and currently not highly popular candidates -- at least compared with GOP candidates in recent elections -- to choose their party's presidential nominee. Meanwhile, the Democratic party has Hillary Clinton as the clear front-runner, and she is both well-known and very popular among Democrats.
The images of the candidates will evolve as the campaign unfolds, and many largely unknown candidates will become better known, particularly if they have noteworthy performances in the debates or do well in early state primaries or caucuses.
But at the outset of the 2016 campaign, the GOP lacks the star power of prior campaigns in having a very well-known and highly popular candidate as the nomination front-runner. That may mean that the Republicans could be in for a protracted nomination battle as a number of similarly rated candidates vie for votes.
However, early popularity is also by no means a guarantee of campaign success. For example, Rudy Giuliani's popularity at the beginning of the 2008 campaign, likely related to his well-regarded handling of the 9/11 terror attacks, faded during a lackluster campaign that saw him struggle to gain a foothold among Republican voters. And Elizabeth Dole could not translate her high name recognition and popularity into a viable 2000 campaign, dropping out before the primaries in part because of George W. Bush's commanding lead in fundraising.
Historical data for this question are available in Gallup Analytics.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted March 2-4, 2015, on the Gallup U.S. Daily survey, with a random sample of 653 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of Republicans, the margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.
Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.
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