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Is Bush Doomed In The General? (Or: A Lesson In Conditional Probability)

If you compare Hillary Clinton’s favorability ratings to Jeb Bush’s, you’ll find what seems like a sign of impending doom for the Republican should he face her in the general election. Whereas Clinton’s favorability ratings are break-even,1 Bush’s are poor, with a 31 percent favorable rating and a 45 percent unfavorable rating.

Most of the time you’re better off ignoring these early polls. Some of this is on general principle: A lot can and will change between now and next November.

But there’s also a particular reason for Democrats not to get giddy about Bush’s polling: He’s a long way from winning the Republican nomination. In fact, his poor favorability ratings are in substantial part the result of his tepid support among fellow Republicans. Either Bush will become more popular among Republicans — or they won’t pick him. So citing his current favorability numbers as a general election weakness doesn’t make a lot of sense.

In the graphic below, I’ve listed current favorability ratings for Clinton, Bush and some other candidates (real and potential), broken out by party.2 As you can see, there’s very little support across party lines. Clinton and Joe Biden get terrible ratings among Republicans. None of the Republican candidates get much support among Democrats.

silver-datalab-clinton-v-bush

But whereas Clinton and Biden have stellar favorability ratings among fellow Democrats, Republicans are more critical of some of their candidates. As compared to Clinton’s 84 percent favorable rating within her party, Bush’s favorable rating is just 54 percent, with an unfavorable rating of 28 percent, among GOP voters. (It could be worse: Chris Christie’s favorability ratings are net-negative even within the GOP.)

But Republicans can afford to be picky with a deep and talented field of candidates. So one of two things is likely to happen between now and the time the general election race heats up:

  • Either Bush will gain enough support among Republicans to win the nomination, also boosting his favorability rating overall.
  • Or his lack of support among Republicans will prevent him from being picked. In that case, the relevant comparison is between Clinton and alternatives like Scott Walker or Marco Rubio (or even John Kasich). Walker’s and Rubio’s favorability ratings, like Clinton’s, are about break-even, although with much lower name recognition. Few pollsters have bothered to test Kasich’s numbers yet.

Perhaps there are some in-between cases — Bush emerges as the wounded nominee of the Republican Party. Especially in the early stages of the primary, the GOP candidates will be subject to attacks from their competitors, harming their image among some Republicans as they seek to endear themselves to others.

But even then, most Republicans will come around to the nominee at some point between the end of the primaries and the late stages of the general election. They did for Mitt Romney in 2012; he eventually won 93 percent of the GOP vote despite a sometimes bumpy road in the primaries.

Bush’s favorability ratings are also not very good among independents, at 29 percent favorable and 48 percent unfavorable. But Clinton’s aren’t much better: 41 percent favorable, 55 percent unfavorable. True, Democratic candidates can tolerate mediocre numbers among independents because there are usually more Democrats than Republicans in the electorate in presidential years. (In 2012, Obama won the overall popular vote by 4 percentage points despite losing independents by 5 percentage points.) So perhaps you can read a stalemate among independents as a good sign for Clinton.

But there’s no guarantee that things will stay that way. Bush, who has fairly moderate policy positions, should theoretically be a good fit for moderates in the electorate once they get to know him better. There’s more evidence that candidate ideology matters than that early-stage favorability ratings do.

Or perhaps Bush really is a dud of a candidate. Indeed, we at FiveThirtyEight are mildly bearish on Bush relative to the consensus. If he’s not able to make a good electability case — and his favorability ratings don’t help — Republicans have little reason to pick him ahead of alternatives who are closer to the base ideologically.

But it’s Bush’s nomination chances we’re bearish about — in many ways, the nomination is the tougher hurdle since it’s a multi-candidate race. In analyzing the general election race, it’s only the conditional probabilities that matter. If Bush is good enough to win the primary, he’s probably good enough to give Republicans about a 50-50 shot of winning next November.

Footnotes

  1. About 46 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of her, and 45 percent a negative one.

  2. The chart takes an average of the most recent national polls from YouGov, Public Policy Polling, Quinnipiac, Fox News, ABC/Washington Post and CNN. Some other recent national polls didn’t include a breakdown of candidate support by party, and so those surveys weren’t included in this portion of the analysis. I included candidates who were included in at least four of the six polls.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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