WASHINGTON -- A new measurement from a Gallup Poll is producing surprising results in the upcoming race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Although Mike Huckabee ranks first, as he often does in other polls, five candidates essentially tie for second, including two candidates widely considered long-shots, Rep. Michelle Bachmann and radio talk-show host Herman Cain.
But before making too much of these rankings, it is important to know how they are calculated and what they represent.
The unusual rankings do not rely on the traditional trial-heat question, where pollsters ask: “If the election were held today, for which candidate would you vote.” Rather, the rankings use what Gallup is calling a Positive Intensity Score. As Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport recently wrote, the score measures "the ability of each candidate to generate enthusiasm among the base of those Republicans who know them," something harder to detect at this stage in more traditional measures of vote preference. To be fair, Gallup has never characterized the scores as a measure of voter preference nor claimed that the current scores will predict the ultimate nominee.
But, as Newport explains, classic trial-heat questions have limited value at this stage of a campaign because they often merely reflect candidate name recognition:
It is impossible for lesser-known candidates to “win” in a trial heat because Republicans are not going to "vote" for or support someone whom they have never heard of, or have heard of but know only vaguely. The trial heat thus concatenates two separate dimensions. One, is the candidate well known enough that he or she has the base from which to generate national support among Republicans? Two, does the candidate, in fact, generate a lot of support from those Republicans who do recognize him or her?
Let's consider name recognition for a moment. We tend to treat it as a binary concept -- do we recognize a name or not. But recognition can sometimes be fuzzy. Just about all of us know who Barack Obama and Sarah Palin are and can say a lot about them. Many of us have very strong opinions about them, positive or negative. For other political figures, however, awareness can be more elusive. Sometimes you recognize the name and perhaps their job or office, but you really don't know anything more about them. Sometimes you recognize the name, but can't place it. Sometimes the name seems familiar, and you think you should know it, but you're just not sure. And sometimes you have no idea.
For their ongoing tracking of the Republican presidential candidates, Gallup first asks a straightforward question about each candidate:
I'm going to mention the names of people in the news. For each one, please tell me if you recognize the name or not.
That question produces the following results, tracked since the beginning of the year:
On this measure, again among Republicans, Sarah Palin's recognition (97 percent) is nearly universal, with Mike Huckabee (90 percent), Newt Gingrich (86 percent) and Mitt Romney (84 percent) not far behind.
If the respondent knows the politician, Gallup then asks:
Please tell me whether you have a generally favorable or unfavorable impression of __.
The results from the favorable rating, computed among all Republicans, appear in the following table:
Notice the gap -- as much as 8 percent for some candidates -- between the percentage who say they recognize a name and the percentage who are able to rate the candidate. In part, the gap is because some voters may be able to identify a name (or think they should) but have trouble placing it.
We can take this fuzziness in name recognition a step farther by examining the percentage of Republicans who can rate Republican candidates in a series of recent polls summarized in the table below (all come from surveys conducted in March, except the NBC/Wall Street Journal ratings of Romney and Pawlenty, fielded in late February, and their rating of Sarah Palin from late January).
The favorable rating questions asked by AP/GfK, Reuters/Ipsos and Washington Post/ABC polls summarized above do not ask respondents explicitly whether they recognize each candidate. The NBC/Wall Street Journal question prompts respondents to say if the don't know a name and offers an explicit neutral category.
The numbers for both Romney and Pawlenty fall off, especially on the percentage able to rate them on the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, where respondents can offer a neutral rating. In other words, 40 percent or more of Republicans recognize Tim Pawlenty's name, but a big chunk of those opt for the "neutral" category, suggesting that many know only his name but not much else.
Gallup tries to measure that nuance by asking if respondents who rated a candidate favorably or unfavorably:
Is that a strongly (favorable/unfavorable) opinion or just (a/an) (favorable/unfavorable) opinion?
The second and third columns in the table below show the percentage of all Republicans who give each candidate a strongly favorable or strongly unfavorable rating. Measured this way, Sarah Palin (25 percent) and Mike Huckabee (25 percent) get the most strongly favorable ratings among Republicans. Only Palin (with 8 percent) gets more than a handful of strongly unfavorable ratings.
Gallup also calculates what percentage of people who recognize each candidate has a strong opinion -- favorable or unfavorable -- them. Then, they use those numbers to calculate the Positive Intensity Score -- by subtracting the strongly unfavorable rating from the strongly favorable percentage.
So, why do the Intensity Scores matter? Consider Herman Cain. His recognition is very low -- only 21 percent of Republicans recognize his name -- but one in five who do know him really like him and none strongly dislike him. That generally confirms the more anecdotal accounts of Cain having a small number of hard core fans.
If Cain can significantly grow his recognition while maintaining the same degree of enthusiasm among those who know him -- especially in an early caucus or primary state like Iowa or New Hampshire -- that's an important finding. If he can't, it isn't.
On the other hand, the fact that a quarter of all Republicans gives Sarah Palin a strongly favorable rating is potentially more important, even given the declines since 2008 in her ratings. It means that should Palin choose to run, she begins with a relatively large and enthusiastic base of fans who can contribute funds, attend rallies and -- perhaps most importantly -- might be motivated to vote in a low-turnout caucus or primary. The fact some Republicans strongly dislike Palin does not negate that potential.
Whatever you make of Gallup's intensity scores, keep in mind that the eventual winners of the Iowa Caucuses and New Hampshire primary are likely to see very large changes in their recognition and favorable ratings afterward. Smart presidential candidates won't worry about moving their national numbers in 2011, but will instead focus on moving their numbers in Iowa, New Hampshire and perhaps a handful of other early primary states.
[Thanks to Gallup, Reuters/Ipsos, AP/GfK and the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll for sharing some of the results published above.]