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Should Republicans Fret Over Their Presidential Field?

Republican insiders, reports the Washington Post’s plugged-in Jennifer Rubin, are worried about the quality of their slate of presidential candidates for 2012. Indeed, it has become the conventional wisdom to assert that the Republican field is a fairly weak one. (I’ve also made some off-handed remarks to this effect.)

But is there any evidence for this? Or is it just the sort of thing that partisans always tend to complain about at this point in the political cycle?

As Ms. Rubin notes, the 1992 Democratic field looked very weak — until the emergence of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who turned out to be one of the better natural politicians of our time. Could we be looking back two years from now and wondering why we hadn’t seen Tim Pawlenty or John Thune or Mitch Daniels coming, since they had turned out to be such a manifestly terrific candidate?

Of course that could happen. A lot will change between now and November, including the perceptions toward each of the Republican candidates.

The early evidence, however, suggests that this year’s Republican field may in fact be quite weak by the standards of recent election cycles.

The exercise that follows is quite simple. Using data from, I’ve taken a simple average of the favorability ratings for presidential candidates in both parties at a comparable point in time to the one we’re in now: the first six months of the year before the election.’s data covers the previous three presidential cycles — 2000 through 2008 — so those are the years that we’ll be looking at.

Here, for example, is how the Republican contenders for the party’s 2000 nomination looked at a comparable point in time 12 years ago — that is, between January and June 1999:

It might seem hard to believe now, but George W. Bush was once extremely popular — and, in fact, he was popular well in advance of the 2000 election. In early 1999, polls had an average of 63 percent of Americans viewing him favorably (indicated by blue in the graphic above), versus 16 percent unfavorably (indicated by red). Although Mr. Bush’s numbers eroded some over the course of the campaign, he won an election that wasn’t so easy to win, against the vice president of a popular outgoing president.

Another extremely popular Republican — although one who wore considerably less well — was Elizabeth Dole. John McCain, meanwhile, wasn’t nearly as well known as Ms. Dole or Mr. Bush, but most voters who knew about him liked him — he elicited just 10 percent unfavorable views versus 25 percent favorable ones. does not have data on file for two other candidates, Steve Forbes and Dan Quayle. On balance, however, this was a strong Republican field.

Democrats also had a competitive primary that year. Both of their candidates, Al Gore and Bill Bradley, were reasonably popular. (Although Mr. Bradley wasn’t all that well-known, his favorables trumped his unfavorables by a 3-to-1 ratio).

The Democratic field four years later wasn’t quite as impressive. But John Kerry had fairly promising numbers at this point in 2003 — 31 percent favorable against 14 percent unfavorable — as did Joe Lieberman. A couple of other Democrats (John Edwards and Dick Gephardt) were also in positive territory.

Mr. Bush, meanwhile, won renomination without a contest; he was still very popular at this point in 2003:

The 2008 Republican field, although not remembered all that fondly, started out with two fairly popular candidates in John McCain and Rudolph W. Giuliani. Fred Thompson, also — although his campaign never really gained momentum — had pretty good numbers among those who knew him, with his favorables outweighing his unfavorables 2 to 1. (There was no data at this point in time for Mike Huckabee, whom the pollsters apparently considered too obscure to survey.)

On the Democratic side, Barack Obama was quite well-known by early 2007 — and quite well-liked, with 45 percent taking a favorable view of him against 20 percent unfavorable. John Edwards was also reasonably well-known and reasonably popular. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, triggered a much more polarized reaction: almost everyone had an opinion about her, and it split right about down the middle. Still, Democrats could not have had a lot of complaints about what they had to pick from.

That brings us to this year’s Republican field. Here are the current favorability numbers for 11 potential candidates who (i) have not denied their interest in the presidency and (ii) have been polled enough times for Talking Points Memo to have generated a LOESS regression trendline based on recent favorability surveys:

As compared to the other examples that we’ve looked at, there’s an awful lot of red in that chart — meaning, candidates whom the public views more unfavorably than favorably. Two exceptions are Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, who are slightly into positive territory. On the other hand, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich have especially poor ratings.

Several other candidates, like Mr. Thune and Mr. Pawlenty, are not yet terribly well-known — which means that they have plenty of room to grow. Nevertheless, their numbers were worse than someone like John Kerry, who was also not all that well-known, but who elicited favorable (rather than ambivalent) reactions from those voters that did know him.

So it does look like Republicans have some legitimate reason to worry. In the previous five competitive primaries — excluding 2004 for the Republicans, when Mr. Bush won re-nomination uncontested — each party had at least two candidates whose net favorability ratings were in the positive double digits, meaning that their favorables bettered their unfavorables by at least 10 points. All five times, also, the nominee came from among one of the candidates in this group. Republicans have no such candidates at this point in time.

Meanwhile, the Republicans have two candidates in Ms. Palin and Mr. Gingirch whose net favorability ratings are actually  in the double-digit negatives, something which since 2000 had only been true of Pat Buchanan and Al Sharpton.

There are plenty of examples of candidates who became considerably more popular (like Hillary Rodham Clinton) or considerably more unpopular (like Elizabeth Dole and Mr. Giuliani) over the course of an election campaign, so none of this is set in stone, especially for the candidates who aren’t yet well-known. Likewise, it’s hard to say what Barack Obama’s standing will look like by November 2012 (right now, his favorability ratings are 51 percent favorable against 41 percent unfavorable).

I would quarrel with Ms. Rubin’s notion that Republicans are squandering a “golden opportunity.” On the one hand, incumbent presidents aren’t easy to beat; on the other, the identity of the opposition candidate only matters within a fairly narrow interval (when the president’s approval rating is between roughly 40 percent and 50 percent). But unless a candidate like Mr. Clinton emerges, Republicans may well be at some risk of underachieving.

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