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Are the Republican Presidential Candidates Weak?

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I've previously downplayed concerns that the GOP field is weak since challengers to an incumbent president usually seem flawed at this point in the election cycle. Yesterday, however, Nate Silver made a more sophisticated argument, claiming that the GOP field is relatively weak in terms of the public profiles of its candidates. He compared the favorable/unfavorable ratings of the leading Republican candidates to the ratings of the leading Democratic and Republican candidates in 2000, 2004, and 2008, and found the current candidates don't measure up.

If we broaden the data to include the 1992 and 1996 election cycles, however, the picture becomes more muddled. Consider the favorability data for possible Democratic contenders from a Gallup poll in April 1991 (I've bolded the ones who eventually ran; Jerry Brown, Tom Harkin, and Bob Kerrey weren't included in the poll):

  • Lloyd Bentsen (40% favorable/25% unfavorable)
  • Bill Clinton (15%/12%)
  • Mario Cuomo (48%/22%)
  • Richard Gephardt (49%/16%)
  • Al Gore (41%/16%)
  • Jesse Jackson (42%/52%)
  • Dave McCurdy (7%/12%)
  • George McGovern (36%/39%)
  • George Mitchell (26%/13%)
  • Charles Robb (17%/11%
  • Stephen Solarz (12%/12%)
  • Paul Tsongas (15%/12%)
  • Douglas Wilder (25%/14%)

None of the candidates who ran had an especially strong public profile relative to George H.W. Bush (80% favorable, 19% unfavorable in a July 1991 ABC poll). And yet Bill Clinton, who started out with relatively modest numbers (15% favorable/12% unfavorable), ended up unseating a president who many thought would be unbeatable. The key factor? A slow economy.

We can observe the opposite lesson from the 1996 presidential election cycle. Consider the favorability profiles of the possible GOP candidates that Gallup polled in February 1995 (eventual candidates are again indicated in bold):

  • Lamar Alexander (17% favorable/17% unfavorable)
  • Pat Buchanan (30%/45%)
  • Bob Dole (73%/19%)
  • Newt Gingrich (43%/40%)
  • Phil Gramm (38%/16%)
  • Richard Lugar (14%/12%)
  • Dan Quayle (47%/50%)
  • Arlen Specter (17%/20%)
  • William Weld (13%/11%)
  • Pete Wilson (37%/21%)

The Republicans seemed to have a relatively strong group of candidates in terms of favorability ratings, including Bob Dole, who had absurdly high numbers (73% favorable!). By contrast, a March 1995 Gallup poll put President Clinton's ratings at 51% favorable/45% unfavorable. However, once Dole became a candidate and Democrats became more critical of him, his numbers declined. By contrast, Clinton's numbers improved as the economy grew and he ended up beating Dole soundly in the 1996 election.

Silver is right that the current GOP field lacks a widely praised figure who is held in esteem by both Democrats and Republicans, which may be a reflection of the candidates who have chosen to run or the increasingly polarized nature of our country's politics. It's not clear, however, that the absence of such a figure will matter. The reality is that the economy plays a dominant role in presidential outcomes. To be sure, public reputations may matter in relatively extreme cases. In the past, for instance, I've argued that Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin might underperform in the general election due to their polarizing public profiles (you could make the same argument for Newt Gingrich or other especially unpopular candidates). Other than Palin, however, it's not clear that the composition of the Republican field will matter much for the GOP's chances in 2012. The numbers that ultimately matter are economic growth, not early-stage polling.

Update 2/15 10:42 AM: I forgot the best example of all -- the last challenger to unseat an incumbent before Clinton. In January 1979, Ronald Reagan's poll ratings were 38% favorable/39% unfavorable in a Cambridge Reports survey (compared to 46%/43% for Carter) but he ended up sweeping the Electoral College in 1980 as a result of the terrible economy. Romney and Huckabee are starting from a similar position. If the economy is bad enough, they'll win too.

Update 2/15 2:15 PM: More from Jonathan Bernstein. See also my Twitter feed and Silver's for more.

Update 2/16 10:57 AM: I've posted a reply to Silver's new post.

[Cross-posted to brendan-nyhan.com]