WASHINGTON -- More than half of the country has no idea who the Koch brothers are.
That was the news from a George Washington University Battleground poll released Tuesday morning. And it was immediately interpreted as bad news for Democrats, who have tried to turn the billionaire energy tycoons into midterm election boogeymen.
"Koch Zero?" read a headline on Washingtonpost.com. "Why Democrats are going to have a hard time enraging people about campaign finance."
The article itself was more dismissive of the strategy: "We've long believed that attacks on two relatively low-profile billionaires isn't likely to work for Democrats simply because, as this poll shows, people don't know who the Koch brothers are."
In fact, the GW Battleground survey, conducted by a bipartisan team of pollsters, doesn't show that "people don't know who the Koch brothers are." It shows that about half the country doesn't know them. It's likely those more aware of the brothers include Democratic donors and politically attentive voters, two constituencies that Democrats are desperately trying to reach in 2014.
Of course, Democratic strategists would like it very much if more of the country knew who the Koch brothers are. With 25 percent of GW Battleground respondents saying they had a negative opinion of the brothers and only 13 percent saying they had a positive opinion, the Kochs do make decent political villains. And as Slate's Dave Weigel points out, the fact that roughly two out of every five Americans knows about the Kochs, despite their efforts to keep themselves and their influence-peddling hidden, is something of a vindication of Democratic strategic thinking.
To get a sense of how the Koch brothers stack up as campaign kindling, it also helps to look at past polls. No comparison is perfect: When the polls took place, the way the questions were asked, and the names of the other people or companies raised in those questions all affect the results. But the data do suggest that while the Kochs are relatively obscure (at least among the public at large), they aren't completely off the radar.
In May 2013, for example, YouGov discovered that 55 percent of Americans had heard of the Koch brothers. That was more than the 51 percent who had heard of investor and Democratic moneyman George Soros. Soros has long been a conservative villain but he hasn't played a starring role in campaigns of late.
In January 2010, CNN/ORG released a poll showing that 24 percent of respondents had never heard of the tea party movement, which was roughly a year old by then.
Perhaps a better comparison, however, is to Bain Capital. In May 2012, 53 percent of respondents to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll said they did not know or were not sure of their opinion of the private equity firm started by Mitt Romney. Over the subsequent months, Democrats used the firm as a cudgel against the Republican presidential nominee.
Romney was obviously more closely associated with Bain Capital than any Republican candidate is with Koch Industries. Bain also became ubiquitous because the Obama reelection campaign worked to make it so. It's unclear if congressional Democrats and their allied committees can do the same this year with the Koch brothers.
Still, that May 2012 poll (which, it should be noted, came two months later in the election cycle than the GW Battleground poll) suggests how something known only to half the country can still be molded into a sharp campaign issue.
Here are some other, semi-relevant survey results to help evaluate the significance of the Koch brothers' poll numbers:
In July 2005, Gallup found that 25 percent of Americans had not heard of the Republican strategist despite his having been widely portrayed as the evil genius behind George W. Bush's two presidential victories.
On Aug. 12, 2012, USA Today/Gallup ran a poll that found 39 percent of the country had never heard of the Wisconsin Republican even though Democrats had been running forcefully against his budget plan. Shortly thereafter, the congressman would be chosen as Romney's vice presidential candidate.
In October 2006, a Newsweek poll found that 36 percent of Americans had never heard of the California Democrat, even though she was poised to become the next speaker of the House and was the target of national GOP scorn.
Gallup and CNN had the percentage of Americans who hadn't heard of Pelosi hovering in the mid- to high 20s during that time period. But Fox News/Opinion Dynamics did a poll in October 2006 that found 43 percent had never heard of Pelosi, while an Associated Press poll in December of that year (after the election) had 55 percent saying that they hadn't heard of her.
In mid-November 2006, a CNN/ORC poll showed that 37 percent of the public had never heard of the soon-to-be majority leader of the Senate, and 16 percent were not sure of their opinion on him. Gallup's numbers were a bit better for the Nevada Democrat. But an NBC News/WSJ poll in January 2007 found that 58 percent didn't know his name or were unsure of their opinion of him. That number was reduced to 42 percent by January 2009.