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Nominating Fight Wears on Romney’s Favorability Ratings

This chart from Talking Points Memo shows what seems to be a reasonably sharp rise in Mitt Romney’s unfavorable ratings among the broader electorate, much of which seems to have come since we last checked in on the issue just a week ago.

Favorability ratings are a tricky thing, however. They can vary a lot from polling firm to polling firm based on factors like question wording, whether the poll is conducted by automated script or by live interviewing, and so forth. So to get a good read on them, you either want to average a lot of different polls together or you want to check out the trendlines within individual polls.

By my count, there are seven polling firms that have released favorability ratings for Mr. Romney since the start of the year. In each case, the pollster had also polled on Mr. Romney previously, so we have a sense for in which direction the numbers are moving.

Mr. Romney’s favorability rating was unchanged, on average, over the seven polls, some of which showed it increasing and others decreasing.

His unfavorable rating was up, however, in 6 of the 7 polls, and by an average of 3 percentage points.

Three points is hardly a catastrophic increase — especially in comparison to, say, Newt Gingrich’s numbers by the same metric. Still, there were roughly 8,000 interviews conducted between the seven surveys, which means that the margin of error is small and that the trend probably cannot be chalked up to statistical noise.

The trend also coincides with a difficult period for Mr. Romney in the Republican nomination race. There is mixed evidence on whether extended nomination battles tend to hurt the party’s candidate in the general election; the Democratic race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008 is often taken to be a contrary example.

I would tend to agree with Charles Krauthammer, however, that the dynamics of this particular nomination race are more likely to harm than help Mr. Romney if the battle is extended for some time. The lack of discipline among the rest of the Republican field has been a real boon to Mr. Romney overall, but it is also leading to some unfocused attacks against him that may resonate more with independent voters than among actual Republicans.

Meanwhile, unlike the Democratic nominating battle of 2008 — which was mainly a contest of competing demographic coalitions — there are real ideological disparities among the Republican candidates this year, with Mr. Romney trying to assert his conservative credentials rather than playing to the center of the electorate.

The recent Public Policy Polling survey showed Mr. Romney’s unfavorable rating among independent voters having increased by 8 percentage points since December. Fortunately for Mr. Romney, Barack Obama’s ratings remain mediocre with independent voters as well.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.