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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Name Recognition and Positive Intensity of Republican Candidates

No major Republican politician has officially declared that he or she is a candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. This has not stopped a number of them from acting like candidates. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, for example, has come as close to announcing without announcing as possible. He is exploring a possible candidacy. On Thursday, March 17, Gingrich was exploring in New Hampshire. He is not the only one -- The Boston Globe reports that in recent weeks Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum have also made appearances in the Granite State.

Much will change as the campaign for the nomination continues. Potential candidates are stumping around the country precisely to try to become better known and to impress Republican voters.

Pollsters, including Gallup, have traditionally measured candidates’ progress using a “trial heat” ballot. This involves reading a list of the names of candidates to Republicans (and Republican-leaning independents) and asking them whom they would vote for in their state’s primary, or who they would support for their party’s nomination.

Gallup has continued this tradition this year and will update the GOP trial heat ballot from time to time as the year unfolds.

This gives us the ability to compare to previous elections. For example, we know that at this point (February) back in 1979, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford were virtually tied as Republicans’ first choices, followed by former Texas Gov. John Connally and Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker. In April 1987, then Vice President George Bush had about twice the number of Republican voters as runner up Bob Dole, followed by former NFL player (and New York congressman) Jack Kemp. In March 1999, Texas Gov. George W. Bush dominated Republicans’ choices for their party’s nomination, with Elizabeth Dole a distant second.

At this point this year, Gallup’s latest such trial heat poll shows Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and Sarah Palin roughly tied -- each with less than 20% of Republicans’ votes. All other candidates have single-digit support. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds somewhat different results -- with Huckabee and Romney ahead, with Palin and Gingrich forming a second group behind.

At this point in the race, however, these trial heat standings reflect to a significant degree the candidates’ name identification. 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?

For this reason, we have started tracking the GOP candidates in a way that breaks out these two dimensions as separate variables. We think this allows for a maximum degree of precision in following the trajectories of the candidates as they campaign and maneuver through the rest of this year in their efforts to procure their party’s nomination.  (Click here for a full review of the data from this new procedure.)

First, we are tracking the very straightforward dimension of name recognition of the Republican candidates. This is a key. Many of the potential GOP candidates at this point -- the ones not at the top of the trial heat lists -- are quite unknown to many rank-and-file Republicans across the country. They are not going to win their party’s nomination if they do not become better known. We are therefore tracking all major potential candidates’ name recognition scores on a nightly basis, and will report the data each week in a rolling average at gallup.com.

At the moment, five candidates have substantial name recognition -- Palin, Huckabee, Gingrich, Romney, and Ron Paul. One additional candidate has name recognition just above 50% -- Michele Bachmann. All others that we tested are known to less than half of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. If these “other candidates “ -- including some who appear quite serious about running for the nomination  (like Haley Barbour, Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman, and Rick Santorum) -- are going to win the nomination, as I noted, they are going to have to significantly increase their name identification as this year progresses into the early months of 2012.

Second, we are tracking the ability of each candidate to generate enthusiasm among the base of those Republicans who know them. This is our measure of Positive Intensity, based on the calculation of the percent of those Republicans who recognize a candidate who have a strongly favorable view of the candidate, minus the percent who have a strongly unfavorable view.

This Positive Intensity measure encapsulates three key elements.
  • First, it is based only on those who recognize the candidate. This normalizes the impact of name identification, and allows us to compare apples to apples -- image among the base of those who know a candidate.
  • Second, it is based only on those who have a strong opinion about the candidate. This is particularly apt in a primary situation in which Republicans will have a natural tendency to be positive toward all possible Republican candidates. We are interested, however, in the ability of the candidate to generate strong emotions, which, in turn, translate into higher probabilities of support in the voting booth.
  • Third, the measure takes into account both strongly positive and strongly negative emotions. This helps in a situation in which a candidate generates both excitement and dismay.

Mike Huckabee generates the highest Positive Intensity at this point. This correlates with his position at the top of the trial heat ballot.  He has a combination of high name recognition and intense positive support.  This is the Holy Grail that candidates are looking for, of course,although most would want even stronger scores than Huckabee is generating at this point.

We also learn that Michele Bachmann pops up on our measure of Positive Intensity. She is known by only half of Republicans.  But among this group, she generates more strongly favorable views than other candidates do among the base of Republicans who recognize them. She wins on this dimension over Romney, Palin, and Gingrich.  In other words, Bachmann gets more intense support from her smaller base of "recognizers" than do the better known candidates from theirs.

So Bachmann, in theory, has the potential to be a leading candidate, if -- and this is a big if -- her support remains as intense when her name recognition expands in the months ahead.  We will see what happens to Bachmann's image when her name recognition begins to expand into the 70s and 80s as is the case for some of her fellow Republicans at this point.  But keep in mind that a number of Tea Party candidates were able to wrest their state Senate nominations away from more moderate Republican candidates last year because they enjoyed exactly this type of profile -- a committed group of intense supporters. 

The Positive Intensity scores for Romney, Palin, Gingrich are weak at this point, suggesting that they simply have not generated a lot of enthusiasm among Republicans, despite being well known.  This is going to have to change if any of these candidates is to ultimately get the GOP nomination.  Palin, as one example, has essentially maxed out her name ID; she is known to virtually all Republicans.  That's the good news if she plans on running for president.  The not-so-good news for Palin is that she at this point is not generating a lot of positive, intense feelings from Republicans.

(Note:  We also calculate the standard measures of favorable image and unfavorable image among all Republicans and make them available for those interested.)

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