I am not interested in squabbles over whether it is kosher to show someone else’s graphic. That ship sailed ten years ago when blogging got big. See Ezra Klein today; it’s what aggregators and commentators do. The real story is that the original interpretation is quite possibly wrong. Go read what Matt Yglesias actually wrote!
The bottom line, in two sentences: 1) Hillary Clinton has Presidential-level name recognition, which nearly the entire GOP field would kill for. 2) Jeb Bush is starting off as damaged goods, but most other Republicans are not.
Follow me down to understand why.
Note that I have not done the cute 45-degree rotation that was the signature of the original FiveThirtyEight graphic. That was clever…maybe too clever, because it obscured important features in the actual data. When the analysis is the story, that can be a danger sign.
Here are three major features I see in the data set.
- Hillary Clinton has massive name recognition. She is as well-known as a sitting President.
- As of today, Hillary Clinton’s favorability is 13 to 22 points higher than every Republican in the race.
- The best-known Republican, Jeb Bush, matches Hillary Clinton’s unfavorability, but lags her in favorability by 15 points. To match her net favorable-minus-unfavorable number, he would have to win over people who don’t have an opinion by a ratio of 1.7 to 1. That is a huge challenge.
(There’s a fourth feature: why is Elizabeth Warren even on this chart at all? Did you guys get the memo? She’s not running!)
I do not know how any analyst can go from these facts to saying that “nobody in this race is popular.” I wonder if FiveThirtyEight feels business pressure to avoid saying things that are particularly favorable to one side or the other. They wouldn’t want to alienate half their readers.
All that said, it is certainly possible for some of these GOP contenders to catch up, especially the ones on the lower left corner of the graph. Ben Carson, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio are starting with a relatively blank slate.
In my view, a major story here is that Jeb Bush is starting off as damaged goods. Jeb has no scandal, yet he is as well-known – and as unpopular – as Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who is facing a fairly adverse Bridgegate situation. And as I have argued before, Christie is not going to get the nomination.
Now think about the fact that Bush is about to enter a long primary season. Sure, he could recover after the dust clears on the GOP nomination. If I recall correctly (update: I do), Mitt Romney recovered in 2012 after the primaries ended. But at a minimum, Bush has some work ahead of him.
A serious challenge for all the GOP candidates is that none of them has a favorability above the low 30s. It’s been said that as voters align with parties rather than individual candidates, candidate qualities matter much less than they used to. What if the GOP brand is toxic? Certainly more voters are aware of “Bush=GOP” than they are of Jeb Bush’s policies as governor of Florida. So it’s possible. In that case, then as any candidate becomes better-known, he will stay on a line that looks like this:
If that line holds up, it means that as people get to know a GOP candidate, they will break unfavorable-to-favorable by a more than 3:1 ratio. If so, then the eventual nominee will end up where Bush and Christie are today.
On the other hand, it could be that after GOP primary voters settle on a nominee, that nominee can break through this pattern. Whatever one thinks of the 2016 election, it is unlikely to be a blowout for the Democrats. So something has to change in the Republicans’ favor. To my eye, Marco Rubio has the greatest capacity to shift this dynamic. I don’t think Ted Cruz is the one to do the job.
Finally, a word on the Vox issue: Possibly, they could have avoided this problem simply by re-plotting the data, as I have. It took me 20 minutes to do so, and that’s only because I draw my plots by hand in MATLAB and Illustrator – basically I am an artisanal graph-maker. Come on, Yglesias, show a little craftsmanship! I am kidding – I love you guys. And hey, you can link to my work anytime.