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Friday, March 25, 2011

Who Will Take on Obama?

Which Republican is going to win the Republican nomination for president and the right to go up against President Obama next year?  That's an important but difficult question to answer because we don’t know for sure who is actually going to run for the GOP nod.  Some Republicans may be hesitating because they are not sure how beatable Obama will be.  I don't think they are going to have too much luck at this point in trying to figure that out, however.  It's simply too soon to tell how competitive Obama will be in his all-but-certain bid for re-election in 2012.

One basic measure that eventually will be useful in gauging Obama's probabilities of being re-elected will be his job approval rating.  This was at 48% as of Gallup’s last weekly average (March 14-20).  It's at 46% in Gallup’s latest daily update (three-day average of March 22-24).

What does this tell us? Not a lot. Bill Clinton's job approval rating was at a similar 46% in March 1995 and he went on to win handily in 1996 against Republican Bob Dole. On the other hand, George H.W. Bush had an amazing 84% job approval rating in March 1991. He went on to lose to Bill Clinton in 1992. 

Ronald Reagan was at an anemic 41% in March 1983, yet in November 1984 the former television and movie actor soundly defeated Democrat Walter Mondale.  Jimmy Carter in March 1979 and Gerald Ford in March 1975 had pretty lousy job approval ratings of 42% and 37% respectively.  Both lost their bids for re-election, Carter to Reagan and Ford to Carter.  Duke Law School graduate and World War II naval officer Richard Nixon had a 50% job approval rating in March 1991, and went on to crush Democrat George McGovern, himself a decorated World War II bomber pilot, in 1972.

In other words, it’s too early to make predictions based on where Obama's job approval rating stands today. Much can change over the next year and a half. The economy will be a big factor, probably the most important.  Obama's chances of winning re-election will become clearer at about this time next year.

Regardless, the siren call of a run for the presidency seems to have a compelling allure for politicians -- one that is difficult to squelch. Many prominent and not-so-prominent Republican politicians have not yet ruled out a possible run.

The potential GOP candidate with the highest Positive Intensity Score among Republicans at the moment is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The minister and former student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, sits above the rest of the GOP pack with a 25 Positive Intensity Score.  He enjoys name recognition second only to that of Sarah Palin.

But it’s not clear that Huckabee is going to run. He is building a big house on the Gulf Coast of Florida and has an apparently well-paying job as a commentator and host on Fox News, among other things. Observers see few signs that he is making the preparations usually considered necessary to mount a campaign.

Which brings us to Alaskan Sarah Palin, who has near-universal name identification among Republicans (97%), but who, at this point, is not generating excessive positive intensity (19). There have been no signs from her camp that she is running. Like Huckabee, she enjoys a nice income from Fox News and other entertainment and speech jobs.

Which brings us to the other two well-known Republicans, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. The former has both a law degree and an MBA from Harvard, the latter a Ph.D. in history from Tulane University. Most observers, including your current correspondent, would probably say that these two gentlemen are going to run. Gingrich has developed an exploratory website showing, naturally enough, that he is exploring the possibility of running. Well over 8 out of 10 Republicans recognize both men.  Neither at the moment is inspiring a great dealt of positive intensity from those who recognize them -- Gingrich with a Positive Intensity Score of 15 and Romney at 16.

Texas Congressman and physician Ron Paul is the other GOP candidate who is well-known, with 76% name identification, but a 14 Positive Intensity Score. 

Which brings us to the question of the moment. Can a relatively obscure Republican politician come from behind and win his or her party’s nomination for president?

One of the candidates who inspires passion from her followers is Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Although she is recognized by only about half of Republicans nationwide, those who do recognize her have a relatively strong intensity in their views of the Winona State College graduate.  In fact, her Positive Intensity is behind only that of Mike Huckabee on our Gallup Positive Intensity Score scale.

Bachmann is making noise about being a potential candidate. She has done a fair job so far of raising her national name identification through judicious use of the national media, making controversial statements, and taking controversial positions. And, as noted, she has the quality that a lot of politicians would like to emulate -- she creates reactions.

Other, more obscure, Republicans who are probably running include Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota and graduate of the University of Minnesota. He is known by just about 4 out of 10 Republicans and has what I would typify as an average Positive Intensity Score (16). He doesn’t appear, at least not yet, to generate a great deal of passion. Pawlenty's ability to increase name identification and move up to the forefront of Republican candidates will need to be monitored carefully.

Another relatively obscure Republican is Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who received his law degree from the University of Mississippi. The native of Yazoo City has both low name identification and low positive intensity at this point.
Looking back in time, we just don’t see any recent examples of Republicans who climbed from obscurity to gain their party’s nomination. My colleague Lydia Saad took a look at the history of GOP races. The list of those who gained their party’s nomination in years in which there was not a GOP incumbent sitting at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and running for re-election include John McCain, George W. Bush, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, Dwight Eisenhower. All well known.

Jimmy Carter, of course, is the best example of someone on the other side of the aisle who did climb from relatively obscurity to gain his party’s nomination. In May 1975, a little further along in the 1976 election cycle than we are now in the 2012 cycle, Gallup gave Democrats a long list of people and asked them “which of these people have you heard something about?” Edward Kennedy led the list at 90%, while Democrats like George Wallace, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, and Edmund Muskie all received more than 75% “yes” scores on the “heard about” question.

Carter? Only 23% said they had heard anything about this Georgia governor, U.S. Naval Academy graduate, and former submarine officer. Yet he went on to win his party’s nomination and the presidency in 1976.

So it can happen. The odds, however, appear tilted against one of the more obscure Republican candidates coming from behind to win their party's nomination.

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

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.)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Wisconsin Union Action, the Death Penalty, and Natalie Portman

Two headlines Thursday morning (March 10) highlighted how the same political action can be described in different ways by different observers.  The political action I'm talking about here is the vote by Wisconsin Senate Republicans relating to Wisconsin's state employee unions. The Washington Post's headline Thursday morning on their website was as follows: “Wis. Senate Strips Workers’ Bargaining Rights.” The New York Times headline Thursday morning on their website was: “Wisconsin Senate Limits Bargaining by Public Workers.”

To the casual observer, these headlines might seem similar. But the results of two recent Gallup surveys show how these types of wording differences can produce different reactions from the American public.

The Washington Post headline mirrors the wording used in a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted on Feb. 21 in which Americans were asked about a plan in Wisconsin to “ . . . take away some of the collective bargaining rights of most public unions, including the state teachers’ union.” The results showed 33% in favor with 61% opposed.

The New York Times headline mirrors the wording used in a separate Gallup poll conducted March 3-6 in which Americans were asked about a plan (Wisconsin not specified) that would involve “Changing state laws to limit the bargaining power of state employee unions.” The results showed 49% in favor, 45% opposed.

Now a number of things were different between these two surveys, including most obviously the passage of time. Also, the February survey focused on Wisconsin specifically, while the March survey focused on “your state.” The February survey question was a stand alone item asked by itself, the March survey item was included in a list of seven different ways that a state budget deficit could be reduced. So there are a number of reasons why the results could be as different as they were.

But certainly the way in which the situation was described in the two surveys was a factor. The February wording mentioned “take away” and “collective bargaining rights” and “public unions.” This wording reflects how the situation in Wisconsin has been typified in many news accounts, as typified by The Washington Post headline Thursday morning. In fact, two other polls, conducted by The New York Times/CBS News and The Wall Street Journal/NBC News, used very similar wording to describe the situation in their questions, and found very similar results.

The March Gallup survey, on the other hand, used the word "limit” rather than “take away” and stipulated “the bargaining power” of “state employee unions.” Certainly, it is a reasonable hypothesis that the differences between “take away” versus “limit” and “rights” versus “bargaining power” could have made a difference.  Americans may be reluctant to endorse the removal of "rights", but more willing to curtail "power".  And so on.

I devoted a chapter to this in my book Polling Matters.  Some people ask me:  "Which is truth?"  My answer:   public opinion on this volatile issue is operating within a range at the moment, depending on exactly what happens in reality, how well the public understands what happens, and how the issue is described to the average citizen not living in Wisconsin and who is not following its every nuance. We learn from these types of differences in survey responses.  Framing the actions taken by the Wisconsin Senate as a removal of rights may well engender more support for the union from the public, while framing it as a more benign limiting of bargaining power may engender more support for the proposed state government actions.  All of this effort to describe an issue in a way that is favorable to one's cause is part of the political process -- particularly as an issue like this begins to get hotter and hotter. 

If the issue in Wisconsin becomes more and more of a national issue in the days ahead, we may reach a point where we simply ask:  "In Wisconsin, do you favor the side of the Governor and Republican lawmakers, or the side of the state employee unions and Democratic lawmakers". 

The Death Penalty

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn over the weekend signed a bill into law that banned the death penalty in Illinois and emptied out death row. Although we don’t have Gallup data just for the state of Illinois, we know that nationwide the death penalty continues to be favored in cases of murder by a fairly strong majority of Americans. This occurs even though a majority of Americans recognize that people have been put to death who later have been found innocent. 

Natalie Portman

Former Arkansas governor and possible 2012 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee criticized Academy Award winning actress (and Harvard graduate) Natalie Portman the other day because she is pregnant and unmarried. Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist minister,  said " . . . it's unfortunate that society often glorifies and glamorizes the idea of having children out of wedlock."

This is reminiscent of the criticism leveled by then Vice President Dan Quayle in 1992 against the television sitcom Murphy Brown because the titular character (played by actress Candice Bergen) was single and pregnant on the show. Quayle criticized the way in which Brown “a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly-paid professional woman" is portrayed as "mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another 'life-style choice.'"

How does this criticism comport with American attitudes? 

We ask Americans each May in our annual Moral Values survey whether they find “having a baby outside of marriage” to be morally acceptable or morally wrong. The latest data from our May 2010 survey finds that 54% say it is morally acceptable and 40% say it is morally wrong.

In other words, taking the nation as a whole, Huckabee's views are in the minority.

Of course there are political differences. Only 41% of Huckabee’s fellow Republicans say that having a baby outside of marriage is morally acceptable, compared to 61% of Democrats. So, in terms of primary voters, Huckabee is preaching to the choir.  Which may be what matters if he decides to enter the race for the GOP nomination.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Jobs Paradox

Every political action has a reaction when it comes to money. By that I mean that well-meaning efforts to restrain costs or cut spending on the one hand mean that someone who would have been on the receiving end of that money is no longer going to get it.

We are in a fascinating but somewhat paradoxical situation at the moment. Americans clearly tell us that jobs are the most important problem facing the United States. A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll measured priorities for Congress in a different way and found the same thing. Jobs are the top priority.

Yet at the same time, we have mighty efforts underway to cut spending on healthcare, and to cut government spending at both the federal and state levels. Cutting back spending in both of these areas will no doubt cost jobs.

We have no further to go to show this than in a fascinating table included in my colleague Dennis Jacobe’s recent analysis of job creation in this country.

Note the good news:  the overall job creation situation among all U.S. workers has been improving. But at the same time the job creation situation at the federal government level has been deteriorating. This reflects, no doubt, the general shift in federal government thinking toward the need for frozen budgets, with the concomitant slowdown in hiring at federal government departments and agencies.

As recently as last October, reports of hiring and firing among those federal government workers we interviewed were more positive on balance than the reports of all U.S. workers. (The latter group, of course, is dominated by the private sector.) Gallup’s Job Creation index among federal government workers was at a +17 in October 2010 -- well above the +10 among all U.S. workers. Fast forward to last month.  The Job Creation index as reported among federal government workers has plummeted to +1, now well below the +12 among all U.S. workers.

The federal government, in other words, is no longer providing the booming employment market that it was.

If anything, with the current efforts by House Republicans to cut back on the budget dramatically, there will be even less federal hiring in the months ahead.

Remember that our analysis of Job Creation in 2010 showed that both the District of Columbia and Maryland were in the top 10 states in terms of job creation -- fueled, no doubt, by the boom in the federal government. Now, I would think that when we tally up the same numbers at the end of this year, we will find a change. It’s quite possible that D.C. and Maryland will fall out of the top 10.  The driving economic engine of these area's prosperity -- the federal government -- is throttling back.

One person’s cup of tea is another’s poison. Cutting back on federal (and state and local) employment makes perfect sense from a financial perspective focused on ballooning deficits and increasing taxes. But cutting back on federal (and state and local) employment makes perhaps less sense from the perspective of someone who works for the federal (or state or local) government.

Of course at previous times in U.S. history, the government created jobs out of thin air to help employ people, including most famously the Civilian Conservation Corps. Now, we have a juxtaposition of sorts, with the effort to both increase jobs on the one hand, but cut back on spending that leads to government jobs on the other. It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out.

And, we have a somewhat similar situation when it comes to the healthcare system. There is great agreement that one of the most efficacious ways to cut back on healthcare costs is to make Americans more healthy, so that they need fewer health services, and to cut back on unnecessary tests and procedures. But if Americans need fewer health services and take fewer tests and have fewer procedures, then there will need to be fewer healthcare workers providing those services, tests, and procedures.

The high rates of obesity in the U.S., to take one example, have resulted in a boom employment picture for those who work in the diabetes care industry, for those who work in cardiovascular units of hospitals, and for those who work for the billion dollar weight loss industry. A healthier, slimmer America will be an America that spends less money in all of these areas -- costing jobs.

Of course, the hope is that with less spending by the federal government and less spending on unnecessary or preventable healthcare, more money will be available to spend in other areas. That may be the case, but in the short-term, these efforts to control costs and spending may have disruptive effects on America's employment picture.

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