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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Comparing the GOP Candidates, Perry to Huntsman

Michele Bachmann has gained more national name identification among Republicans than any other GOP candidate Gallup has been tracking this year, moving from 52% recognition in early March to 84% today -- for a gain of 32 points. (For full details on all of the candidates, go to our Gallup Election 2012 data center). Herman Cain has gained 27 points in all, from 21% name identification in March to 48% in the last two weeks through Sept. 11. Other candidates who have gained significantly in name recognition include Jon Huntsman from a low of 20% to 46%, for a gain of 26 points, and Rick Perry, who has gone so far from 55% to 75%, for a gain of 20 points.

As you can see from the above, each of these candidates began at a different starting point.

Bachmann and Perry began their recent “careers” on the national campaign stage with name identification of over 50%. Bachmann has accomplished the most in terms of getting better known during this campaign season so far, vaulting into the same name recognition territory as Newt Gingrich, who has been a national politician since the 1990s, Ron Paul, who has run for president twice before this year, and Mitt Romney, who too was a prominent candidate in 2008.

On the other hand, Cain and Huntsman began this year with severe name identification handicaps -- both at 21%. The problem for these two candidates:  Despite their impressive gains in recognition, they are still below the majority level nationally among Republicans. Thus, for both Cain and Huntsman, lack of name recognition remains a problem. One can’t win one’s party’s nomination for president is one is an unknown to more than half of one’s rank-and-file party identifiers nationwide. This weak positioning for the two men persists, even though they have both been included in recent Republican debates and have both, in one way or the other, been actively campaigning.

It may be somewhat surprising -- it is to me -- that Rick Perry’s name recognition has essentially stalled out for the moment.

Perry's name identification rose rapidly as he entered the national scene a couple of months ago, but his name identification has leveled off at 75%. Keep in mind that for these last two weeks Perry has been a dominant figure in national political news coverage. He most recently has been anointed by the national press as the “front-runner” in the GOP race. Still, he remains less well-known that Bachmann and Romney. It would continue to be surprising if Perry’s name identification doesn’t rise in the weeks ahead.

The standard-setter for name identification among Republican politicians is former Alaska governor, former vice presidential nominee, book author, and television personality Sarah Palin -- whose name recognition is essentially universal, from 95% to 97% each week all year long.

We’re in the field now asking Republicans nationwide how closely they are following the campaign for the GOP presidential nomination.  This will give us another insight into the degree to which the attention we political devotees are paying to the election is, in fact, not shared by others.

I was asked recently by an astute political journalist which candidate generates the strongest reactions from Republicans -- in either direction.

One way to answer that question is to look at the combined total of Republicans who recognize each person who say their opinion of that person is either strongly favorable or strongly unfavorable. The winner? Rick Perry, with 27% strong favorable opinions and 4% strong unfavorable opinions (again, among those who recognize him). Next in line is Sarah Palin, with 20% strong favorable and 10% strong unfavorable, followed by Herman Cain (24% strong favorable and 2% strong unfavorable), and Rudy Giuliani (21% strong favorable, 3% strong unfavorable). Palin’s 10% strong unfavorable, by the way, is the most negative reaction generated by anyone we track, while Perry’s 27% strong favorable is the most positive.

One final point. It’s worth noting how poorly Jon Huntsman’s campaign strategy has played out so far. In addition to his name identification problems, Huntsman has the most negative image of any GOP candidate we measure. The triple whammy for Huntsman is that he has low name identification (46%), a low-intensity image (only 11% of those who recognize him feel strongly about him in either direction), and a net negative image among those who do feel strongly about him (5% strongly favorable, 6% strongly unfavorable).

In recent weeks, Huntsman and his campaign have decided that his best strategy is to differentiate himself from the pack of other GOP candidates by adopting an explicitly more moderate position on issues such as evolution and climate change. The result? His Positive Intensity Score has dropped even further, with two straight weeks of negative numbers. Huntsman, as noted, is now in the most negative position of any candidate we track.

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