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Romney-Obama: No Popularity Contest

If Mitt Romney becomes the Republican presidential nominee, he will begin the general-election campaign with middling favorability ratings as compared with other recent standard-bearers.

The saving graces for Mr. Romney: the incumbent in the White House is not very popular, either. And Mr. Romney’s favorability ratings, while mediocre, are better than those of his Republican opponents.

A CNN poll released Friday found that 43 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Mr. Romney and 42 percent an unfavorable view. Both ratings are higher than in most other recent polls as Mr. Romney has become a more familiar figure to Americans and as they have come to take firmer opinions of him. However, the pattern of Mr. Romney’s favorability rating roughly equaling his unfavorability rating is typical for him.

Mr. Obama’s ratings in the poll were 49 percent favorable and 49 percent unfavorable. These numbers are also common for him. In most surveys, Mr. Obama’s favorability ratings are slightly stronger than his approval ratings — Americans take a somewhat more sympathetic view of Mr. Obama personally than of his policies. But they are still no better than evenly divided.

In contrast to Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama, other recent nominees had clearly net-positive favorability ratings at this stage of the campaign.

In 2008, for instance, Mr. Obama’s favorability rating averaged 57 percent and his unfavorability rating 31 percent, according to an average of surveys in the database in the month after the New Hampshire primary. The ratings for Mr. Obama’s Republican opponent, John McCain, were similar, averaging 54 percent favorable and 31 percent unfavorable.

George W. Bush, in 2000, and John Kerry, in 2004, also had positive ratings at this stage of the campaign. Mr. Bush’s unfavorables had climbed by the time he ran for re-election in 2004, and Al Gore’s were not terrific in 2000, but they were still in positive territory over all, unlike what we now see for Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney.

In a perfect world, of course, Republicans might prefer to nominate someone of whom the American public had a clearly positive view. But it is not apparent just who that might be. Some of Mr. Romney’s opponents have highly negative favorability ratings. Newt Gingrich, for instance, had a favorability rating of 28 percent against an unfavorability rating of 56 percent in the CNN poll, while views of Rick Perry were 27 percent favorable and 51 percent unfavorable.

There is little academic research on favorability ratings for presidential candidates and how meaningful they might be in predicting election outcomes. To some extent, the middling ratings for Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney probably reflect the difficult environment for politicians of all kinds.

Still, it is probably worth watching how Mr. Romney’s favorably ratings evolve as he undergoes a torrent of attacks from his Republican opponents. The attacks could presage what is likely to be one of the nastiest and most negative general election campaigns ever.

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