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What Early Presidential Polls Tell Us

Monday’s post on the strength of the Republican primary field has elicited a couple of critiques, such as this one from Brendan Nyhan.

The article looked at favorability ratings for potential Republican candidates this year and found that the public’s view of them ranges from tepid, to uncertain, to fairly poor. In contrast, at a comparable point in elections dating back to 2000, at least a couple of candidates in each field were reasonably popular.

Mr. Nyhan was able to retrieve some data on elections earlier than those contained in the database. He found that the 1996 Republican field contained a number of popular candidates. Bob Dole had exceptionally high favorability ratings in early 1995, and two other Republican candidates — Phil Gramm and Pete Wilson — had fairly strong ones.

On the other hand, Mr. Nyhan reported, Bill Clinton was barely known at this point in 1991 — he had a favorability rating of 15 percent against 12 percent unfavorable. This example is interesting in a couple of ways. First, there were several Democrats who were quite popular that year (Mario M. Cuomo, Al Gore, Richard A. Gephardt), but who chose not to run. In contrast, I can’t find any plausible Republican who has especially strong favorable ratings today unless you want to count David Petraeus or Colin Powell. Second, the public still held a lukewarm view of Mr. Clinton even upon electing him: a New York Times poll in October 1992, just weeks before the election, found 33 percent of voters with a favorable view of him but 39 percent unfavorable. Mr. Clinton won despite being a candidate whom voters were slow to develop a liking for.

A more unambiguously favorable precedent for Republicans is that of Ronald Reagan. Mr. Nyhan reports that at this point in 1979, Mr. Reagan’s ratings were 38 percent favorable, against 39 percent unfavorable. However, his favorability ratings were fairly strong by mid-summer 1980, and he soundly defeated Jimmy Carter later that year.

Both Mr. Reagan and Mr. Clinton also benefited from running against unpopular incumbents. I estimate that Mr. Carter’s approval rating was 31 percent, and George H.W. Bush’s was 39 percent, at the time of their respective defeats in 1980 and 1992. If Barack Obama’s numbers are in that range in November, 2012, it will be almost impossible for him to be re-elected regardless of the identity of the Republican nominee (although one Republican, Sarah Palin, has such poor favorability ratings that it might make for an interesting test case were they not to improve).

Mostly, however, the question is what happens when Mr. Obama’s approval ratings are roughly in the range of 40 percent to perhaps 52 percent; within this range, the quality of the Republican candidate might plausibly make some difference as to whether he wins or loses.

To study this properly, we need answers to two further questions: first, how well do today’s favorability ratings predict what they will be next year, once people are actually voting? And second, how important are favorability ratings — and by extension, how important is what we might think of as ‘candidate quality’ — in presidential elections to begin with?

The first question is perhaps somewhat easier to address, so we’ll evaluate that one for now and save the other for a later date. One thing we can look at, for instance, is how much favorability ratings change during the primary process.

The table below compares favorability ratings for presidential candidates in what I call the ‘very early’ period — the first six months of the year before the presidential election — to the ‘post-primary’ period. The ‘post-primary’ period consists of all favorability polls conducted from 30 days after the Iowa caucus until the day before the candidate’s nominating convention — roughly from February or March of the election year through July or August. In cases where there were not at least three polls conducted during this period, I included polls from immediately after the Iowa caucuses (without the 30-day buffer zone) as well. (Unfortunately, several candidates were not polled at all after the Iowa caucuses and had to be eliminated from the study.) For candidates who won their party’s nomination, I also include favorability ratings from what I call the ‘very late’ period — the final three weeks before the November election. All data, as in the original study, is taken from and consists of the last three presidential elections.


Favorability ratings can shift quite a bit during the primaries: among the candidates to gain a significant amount of stature were John McCain in 2000 and John Edwards in 2004; among those to lose it were Fred Thompson and Rudolph W. Giuliani in 2008. Also, in 2000, George W. Bush went from being phenomenally popular to merely very popular.

However, it is clearly incorrect to suggest that a candidates’ post-primary favorability numbers cannot be predicted at all by what they are early on. For the 18 candidates in the study who actually endured a primary (not counting George W. Bush in 2004, who did not), the correlation of the candidate’s net favorability ratings between the two periods was .63.


That is not a terribly strong correlation by any means, and the number might change some if the study covered more years and included candidates like Mr. Dole and Mr. Reagan. Nevertheless, the relationship is highly statistically significant. Even at this early stage, polls tell us something — not everything, not a lot, but something — about how the candidates are liable to be perceived next year following the primaries.

In contrast, Mr. Nyhan has written that early primary polls “don’t matter” and that they are “useless” — and several other bloggers have echoed these statements. That just isn’t true. Yes, as a first approximation, the rule of thumb “don’t pay much attention to early primary polls” is probably better than “pay a lot of attention to early primary polls,” given the way that the media tends to overrate their importance. But Mr. Nyhan’s statement is hyperbolic.

So what does this mean for Republicans? Well, there are still several other pieces of the puzzle to examine. For one thing, as Jonathan Bernstein notes, Mr. Obama will not run against “the Republican field” but instead against one Republican in particular. How one predicts the popularity of the Republican nominee after the primary battles gets complicated, since the winner of the primary will not be determined by fiat but instead by the candidates’ (and the voters’) behavior. Some things that a candidate can do to help him win the primary (like performing strongly in debates) should also help him in the general election. But for other choices, such as moving away from the center to cater to the party base, just the opposite is true.

Also, although in recent elections a candidate’s favorability ratings have been relatively stable once the primaries are resolved, they can of course continue to evolve. Probably more importantly, we have left open the question of exactly how much candidate quality matters in races against an incumbent president.

Nevertheless, this year’s Republican field is on the low end of popularity as compared to most recent ones — and early primary polls are meaningful enough that this is worth considering, along with other factors. The way that I would recommend thinking about Mr. Obama’s re-election chances, at this early stage, is to start with the baseline re-election rate for incumbent presidents (which is about 70 percent), and then make a list of other factors that might lead one to believe that this figure overestimates or underestimates them. Under the list of favorable factors for Mr. Obama, I would include a bullet-point for “Public has tepid view of Republican candidates; Republican nominee might be weaker than average.”

Something for Republican strategists to worry about? Sure, if they enjoy worrying. But probably not something for them to lose any sleep over until and unless they are on the verge of nominating one of their more unpopular alternatives.

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