Tuesday, February 15, 2011


The argument about how strong (or weak) the current Republican field of presidential contenders is back, with Nate Silver putting together some evidence of how unpopular the current groups is compared with previous fields, and Brendan Nyhan adding even more data.

I still find this discussion a lot less systematic than it should be. First of all, I agree with Nyhan's previous post on the subject: we can expect candidates who have little stature now to gain that quality as a consequence of winning primaries and caucuses, and eventually having a convention devoted to praising them and then debating the President of the United States of America (or, in other years, at least the other party's nominee). And I'll stick to what I said before: when thinking about the general election, it's not the field that matters; it's the winner. But that just begs the question: what do we mean when we talk about a weak candidate field?

It seems to me that the first thing to distinguish is between strengths as a candidate for nomination and as a candidate in a general election. It's pretty clear that these are not always the same thing at all; to begin with, moderation would usually be a minus in primaries, a plus in November. Some candidates have no chance for the nomination because they fail a key litmus test on an issue vital to an important party group, but would be excellent general election candidates if they could somehow navigate that problem.

So: what makes a "strong" or "weak" candidate? For the nomination, I'd start, before anything else, with those veto issues. Indeed, the 2008 GOP field was (in my opinion correctly) thought of as weak in that sense because each candidate seemed to have a serious issue clash with a veto-wielding portion of the party. Thus the demand for a new, broadly acceptable candidate (alas for Republicans, that only managed to produce the ill-fated Fred Thompson semi-campaign).

What else matters? That's where it gets awful tricky. Paper qualifications count (so Steve Forbes or Alan Keyes could be identified as weak candidates). Ability to run a national campaign, which includes both the public and the management sides -- but identifying the ability to do that is very difficult, and probably calls for subjective judgement by careful observers rather than any objective criteria. Presumably, that is, someone should have known that Fred Thompson was likely to be listless, that Phil Gramm wouldn't appeal outside of his home region, that Bill Clinton would persevere when the going got rough, and so on.

What about the general election? First of all, it's worth noting (as Nyhan and Silver both do) that candidates make less of a difference in November. Much less.

Beyond that, I'd probably say that there's little, but not nothing, that we can guess at from eighteen months out. Generally, as I said above, moderation is better than extremism. It's probably worth looking at some of the "ability to run a campaign" markers mentioned above, but not all that closely -- anyone with very strong negatives in this area isn't going to win the nomination.

Now, what I've omitted so far is the one and only thing that Nate Silver looks at in his post: current popularity. For the general election, I just can't see that it matters. Tim Pawlenty may be virtually unknown now, but if he's the Republican nominee he's going to have universal name recognition and will likely be reasonably popular. Or, perhaps, not -- but I'm not at all convinced that his early lack of name recognition gives us even a hint of how he would fare compared to a generic Republican in the general election. I would agree that the rare candidate who has proved to be unusually unpopular over many years -- Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich -- would be an exception, but even that comes with a caveat to be careful in how to interpret early negative ratings. For a well-known candidate, it could just be normal partisan polarization kicking in, something that will eventually come to Pawlenty or the other obscure candidates should they get nominated.

Last thing: the strength or weakness of the "field" needs to be thought of top-down for most questions that might interest us (such as: could another candidate enter late and win? Or: will the eventual nominee be stronger or weaker than a generic candidate?).  The 2008 Democratic field was unusually deep, with the 4th through 6th candidates (Biden, Dodd, Richardson) unusually strong for either the nomination or the general election, but that was a curiosity, not an indication of anything. On the other extreme, many thought that the 1984 field was unusually weak behind Walter Mondale -- but for the nomination, Mondale was a very strong candidate, so it nothing about Alan Cranston or Fritz Hollings really mattered.

All in all, I think that attempts to measure the strength of the candidate field at this point are interesting, but they should not be based only (or even mainly) on early polling, and it's important to separate out the idea of strength for the nomination and strength for the general election.


  1. Good post. Two things: first, Nate Silver more or less grants your point about Pawlenty and the like. Their ratings are driven by people not knowing who they are, and it's not impossible they'll get high ratings in the future.

    But as for your "caveat to be careful in how to interpret early negative ratings," I think it's incumbent on you to find counterexamples of presidents (that's what we're writing about here, right? presidents, not nominees) who had ratings that negative at any point. Absent such counterexamples, there's little reason to take seriously that caveat.

    Who would qualify? Nixon? The elder Bush? I doubt that either had -10 ratings at any point, but who knows? Indeed, one could imagine a contribution to political science, a rule like "Any candidate who reasonably garners -10 favorability ratings can be ruled out as a future president." Wouldn't that be nice? Or why would that not be true (at least as far as the past can tell us)?

  2. I wouldn't be at all surprised if Nixon was -10 in 1962-1963. Nyhan has, IIRC, run some numbers on Hillary Clinton -- she was highly unpopular (among all voters) at one point, and then became OK popular during the Dem primaries. I don't think it would have been hard for her to win the general, despite her early unpopularity.

    And I'm on the record as saying that Palin could have (and perhaps still could, although time's running out for '12) turn her unpopularity around. She'd just have to behave differently, which so far she's shown no capacity to do. The problem, though, IMO is her behavior, not the built-in negatives.

  3. This becomes an ... almost an ontological issue. If you frame the question of Palin this way: Palin has serious negatives because Palin is a deeply unserious person who has NOT actually behaved much like a presidential candidate recently. (She tried to trademark her name, for God's sake -- that was kind of giving the game away.) So if you accept the premise that her negatives spring from her deep unsuitability to be president or even a nominee, then the argument that she could "turn it around" also doesn't function. If she were the kind of person who had a shot at becoming president, she would not be -23 right now, ipso facto. It's an unprovable argument, but not necessarily a wrong one. Countering it is only your feeling that she could turn it around, unless I missed something.

    Nixon and Hillary are interesting possibilities. Sounds like a subject for future research. You might add in the word "consistently," which changes the argument a bit, if a candidate *consistently* or throughout the entirety or his or her public life (more or less) yields such poor numbers, then it's time to stop writing big thinkpieces about that person sitting in the Oval Office.

    Having said all that, I'd grant the point, not so much about Palin but about 2011. It's a weird time in politics, and one of the two major parties is seriously dysfunctional. Whether that means they are going to replay the Democratic experiences of 1984 and 1988 (which would disprove your argument) or something different is not knowable now. But we should at least be able to begin sketching out general rules for massively unpopular candidates.

  4. Kind of a chicken/egg problem, no?

    I mean, HRC's numbers were not as totally the product of her actions as are Palin's numbers.

    Palin could theoretically turn those numbers around, but I think we really have a good bead on who she is, and this thing walks and quacks like a duck.

  5. Apropos....


  6. I would argue that as a supporter, Palin is just a name that people recognize but know nothing about. No one really knows anything about her but they recognize the name and have believe they have formed an opinion on what they have heard from others.

    But if you ask anyone on the street, even those who support her, what she stands for and they'll get tongue-tied because they wouldn't be able to say anything beyond some generic talking point.

    So Gingrich and Hillary are extremely different from Palin. They have their numbers because of their actions. They after all have been on the scene for over a decade.

    With Palin, nobody has really ever gotten the chance to know her like they have with Hillary and Newt. She gave a speech at the Republican National Convention that nearly every American who isn't a liberal Democrat (moderate Democrats loved it) loved. But since then, she really hasn't had the same opportunity as she had at the convention. I suspect if she had the same audience and was able to give a similar performance (perhaps during her announcement speech), that her numbers would change dramatically in her favor. A speech by someone people barely knows can move things in her direction than a speech from someone everyone knows.

    The reality in my opinion is that her name recognition is a mirage. People know the name but don't know anything about her.

  7. Yeah, I think that's the crux of the issue here. Clinton's low numbers were much more a factor of outside events than anything about her (a sustained negative media campaign and a one-sided information flow until 2007, basically). Once she really engaged the national electorate (and once the media campaign against her got a little confused), people found something engaging about her.

    I'm sensitive to the argument that Palin is different. Indeed, I think she is, but I don't think it's proven yet. I don't think she's had nearly as sustained a media campaign against her as Clinton did, and I think she's had more success managing her own national image (or just an earlier start in doing so). If that's the case, then yeah, we're looking at something more intrinsic about her. But I know there's plenty of people who will say she's had every bit as bad a campaign as Clinton and hasn't really engaged the battle yet.

    So I don't know. And I wonder if we had any idea about Clinton circa 1997, either.

  8. Colby,

    I disagree vehemently. Let's put aside our partisanship for a second and examine the differences.

    Clinton had major advantages that she was unable to exploit as a public figure in the 90s. The American public, even from the other side, almost always view the First Lady with total reverence. She also had the fortune of having her husband cheat on her. That always creates sympathy. Look at Elizabeth Edwards. She was complicit in the John's deception but most people don't care because she was the one cheated on. The easiest way for Palin to improve her numbers is for her husband to cheat on her (that Enquirer story was debunked by the Anchorage Police Department in case you were wondering).

    Let's not forget too that the media framed what happened to Hillary as a right-wing witch hunt. I believe that we would have destroyed both the Clintons had we not gone after them with the degree of intensity that we did. Clinton would be Mark Sanford, John Edwards, and John Ensign had we not overplayed our hand. So the media was pushing a narrative that actually played favorable for HIllary.

    In other words, I think you have it the opposite. It was something intrinsic about Hillary but she was able to overcome it dramatically. With Palin, it's too early to tell given that she has been around for two years.

  9. I think the veto issue is important, because the range of vetoes in the GOP field seems to have greatly increased in the last four years. Just about every major domestic policy initiative of the Obama Administration--the stimulus, HCR, cap-and-trade, financial regulation, immigration reform--has become something no viable candidate for the 2012 Republican nomination can currently support. I'm not even sure they'd be allowed to support DADT repeal, despite its strong popularity with the general public. This all poses a dilemma for the candidates: winning the GOP nomination requires them to take some positions that hamper their appeal to general-election voters. That may be one reason for their uncommonly low numbers right now.

  10. Anonymous,
    I have to disagree with you on both Clinton and Palin.

    HRC was opened despised by the right before they knew anything about her. The hatred ran deep and pure, and it came out in 1992. She *started* the Clinton presidency with a 29% unfav--hardly the numbers a typical first lady gets (Laura Bush 17, Michelle Obama 16). So, she didn't have the advantage of any kind of "first lady honeymoon."

    Palin came in as tabula rasa. Nobody knew anything, really. Yes, being introduced to everyone as the VP candidate makes all opinions about her very partisan, but it really is impossible to deny that we know a lot about her and her positions and qualifications. Her tweets make the evening news, for Pete's sake. I think it's kinda silly to argue that we don't know about Palin. Her exposure has been absolutely off the charts. Regardless of whether that information we've received is biased by the lamestream media, or an actual reflection of the two rocks bouncing around inside that empty head of hers (gee, wonder which side I'm on!), our opinions on Palin are formed and fixed. We were wrong about Gary Condit, yet I don't see people changing their minds about him. OJ Simpson could do nothing to salvage his reputation. For people at the center of media attention, they can't change their image; it's fixed.

    Palin's google hits outnumber Obama's (who has a great deal of international attention). They are a factor of 20-70 times as much as other potential GOP nominees. They're more than twice Dubya's. I can't accept the idea that people are really going to change their minds about Sarah Palin, absent some REALLY big news.

  11. Disagree completely. Very few people but the ultra partisans have their opinions fixed and formed about Palin.

    I don't see how you are disagreeing with me on Clinton. Clinton ran into issues because she acted like a different type of First Lady. People formed their opinion on her actions but they changed as she shifted from that role into another role. Remember that Clinton has been front and center for the last twenty years. She was a top story throughout her husband's presidency.

    Why would it be any different from Palin? I think you overestimate the amount of media attention that Palin gets. In terms of actual media coverage (I think google hits is just representative of partisans from both sides being very interested in what she does but not any non-partisans), Silver found that it wasn't that much. I would argue that nobody knows very much about her positions and qualifications. Contrary to your belief, Palin has not been a top story these last two years.

    Even if non-partisans lean negative towards her, it's not based on a lot of information. The random non-partisan couldn't tell you much about her other than she has a special-needs kid (and even that, I'd guess they wouldn't). They'll probably know more about Romney's positions than be able to name one of Palin's positions.

    Don't jump the shark with the OJ/Condit argument. The equivalent to those events for a pol would be having an affair and there is not any reason to believe Palin has such an issue anymore than there is to believe Obama had one (and in Palin's case, if the rumor is true, it would help her significantly because she's not the one cheating).

  12. Anonymous,

    With all due respect: Ms. Palin (as a non-candidate) has been mentioned/discussed more often than any supposed 'actual' candidate. Her fate was pretty much sealed on her first interview (with Couric, I believe?) Quitting her job as governor doesn't earn too many points either. She is basically a walking, talking point, with the intellectual depth of a pothole (btw, I usually vote Republican.)

    HRC's negatives were tied to the notion of being 'co-President' as opposed to being merely a First Lady. She then connected herself to that monstrous Health Care Plan, Pt I. Her negatives were (and are) not for naught.

    Peace be with you.


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