The Popular, the Unpopular and the Unknown

Real Clear Politics has data from, and commentary on, a CBS poll on presidential contenders for 2008. The numbers are simple: favorable/unfavorable ratings for the candidates, plus those who don’t know enough to judge. These numbers are further broken down by party affiliation.

The data suggest a number of observations.

First, not surprisingly, the candidates who look best at this stage are Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, with John Edwards not far behind. McCain and Giuliani are both broadly known and have favorable/unfavorable ratios around two to one. That strikes me as very favorable positioning for the upcoming race.

Second, Hillary Clinton continues to have a problem with high negatives: 43/38. That isn’t quite as bad as some numbers I’ve seen for her, but her unfavorable rating is close to double McCain’s or Giuliani’s. It’s by no means the worst among the Democrats, however; the public has a remarkably negative view of both Al Gore (32/46) and John Kerry (an astonishingly bad 22/48). I suppose those 22% must be the servicemen and women who admire Kerry so much (see Scott’s post below).

Third, buzz among politics junkies, and even the media generally, doesn’t quickly translate into name recognition among the general public. Notwithstanding the non-stop fawning over Barack Obama that we’ve seen in recent months, most respondents–61%–say they don’t know enough about him to have an opinion. Likewise, Mitt Romney seems to have established himself as a credible, first-tier candidate on the Republican side, but the voters haven’t noticed yet. His ratings are an anemic 5/10, with an overwhelming 85% saying they don’t know enough to judge.

Of course, 29% of respondents also say they don’t know enough about John Kerry to form an opinion. I assume these 29% are pretty much all non-voters.

It’s early yet, and these numbers will no doubt jump around between now and next year. Still, the obvious lesson seems unavoidable: the Republicans have two candidates who are well-positioned to win the general election. The Democrats don’t have a candidate who is equally well-positioned. Not only that, it isn’t easy to see who in their ranks will be able to get to a similarly favorable point over the next year. And, much as I like Mitt Romney, I have to wonder what it would take to bring him to the point where his strength as a general election candidate would approximate that of McCain and Giuliani.

PAUL adds: Interesting stuff. Other things being equal, the leading Dems should be doing better than the leading Republicans right now because their party is the more popular of two. This was true on election day and is probably more true today, as the Democrats ride a crest of goodwill based on the natural hope that they will improve things. The party’s current relative popularity helps explain, I think, why Clinton’s numbers have improved. But the weakness in these numbers demonstrates that, when it comes to her, all things are not equal. In other words, though certainly electable, she continues to have the potential to underperform in the 2008 general election, should she make it that far.

On the other hand, as I discussed the other day, McCain faces the real prospect that his ratings will decline due to his unflinching support of the war in Iraq and his call to send more troops there. Giuliani may also have some vulnerability in this regard, but if so it’s far less than McCain’s.

As to Romney, the electorate sees him as a blank slate, but he seems to have the time and the resources to overcome that problem and therefore the opportunity, given his talent, to build a favorable image. However, the high “favorables” that McCain and Giuliani enjoy were built in better times for Republicans, and were based on accomplishments that Romney has not replicated and can’t now achieve.

By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that my daughter works for a consulting firm that provides services to the Romney “exploratory” group. However, my admiration for Romney predates and is unrelated to her connection to her employer and the campaign.

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