Set aside for a moment the media frenzy surrounding Donald Trump and the recent rise in polling by Ben Carson, Jeb Bush remains seen as the frontrunner in the Republican presidential nomination race. The folks over at FiveThirtyEight subjectively give him the best chance to win the nomination, the prediction markets are giving Bush the best chance to win, and until August, a plurality Republicans thought he was the most likely to win. Despite the recent success of Donald Trump, many still believe that after Trumpmania dies down, Bush will be left standing and will eventually become the inevitable candidate. To be clear, no one is particularly excited about Bush and pretty much everyone realizes that, but many seem to think that Bush will eventually get the nod from the Republican party. However, looking more closely at the numbers tells a completely different story.
This early in the race, polls tell us virtually nothing about the race. Candidates tend to take turns getting caught in a sort of feedback loop: their polling surges a bit, the media begins to talk about them more, leading their polling to surge and so on. Because of that feedback loop, polls months away from the first caucuses and primaries are virtually useless as predictors. Instead, many tend to look towards endorsements from party elites in what is known as the “invisible primary.” However, these endorsements have failed to produce any level of consensus in the Republican party this year. In 2012, Republican elites fairly quickly coalesced around Mitt Romney, so even though his polling fluctuated, he was the favored establishment candidate. This year, Jeb Bush has more endorsements than any other candidate, only barely edging ahead of Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker.
However, while voters may change the candidate they support between now and February, how voters feel about candidates is less volatile. Because of the high level of variability in polls, polls which When it comes down to it, there are certain metrics that may indicate how well a candidate can expect to do.
The first, most publicized of these metrics is favorability. Polls often ask the public if they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of many public figures, including the President, Congressional leaders, certain Cabinet members and political candidates. In our case we are concerned with these opinions as they pertain to the Republican primary candidates. Rather than talk about pure favorable or unfavorable percents though, it is often more useful to look at what is referred to as “net favorability,” which is simply the percent of people who view the person as favorable less those who view the person as unfavorable. For example, 40% of Americans view the Democratic Party as favorable, while 49% view them as unfavorable, resulting a net favorability of -9%. The net favorability for each of the Republican candidates, as aggregated by HuffPost Pollster are in the chart below.
Bush is very clearly at the bottom of the pack, with a Net Favorability of -28, while Ben Carson sits at the top of the pack with 12. Carson’s result and Carly Fiorina’s 1 are the only net positive favorability ratings of all the candidates. Trump, for his supposed polarizing, sits near the middle of the pack with a -8. The median net favorability is -11, while the mean is -11.33. However, for some of these candidates, their net favorability is not incredibly informative because of a general lack of knowledge surrounding them. To get a feel for name-recognition, we can look towards the same favorability ratings and look at the percent who respond with “Undecided” to each candidate. While not a perfect reflection of name-recognition (some may legitimately be undecided), it gives us a fairly good idea of it. The graph below represents that data for each candidate.
What this tells us is that for certain candidates, net favorability is not very informative since so many respondents of favorability polls simply don’t know enough to form an opinion of the candidate. So Jim Gilmore’s -14 net favorability and George Pataki’s -16 is not incredibly significant in view of the 68% and 51%, respectively, of those asked in polls who simply do not have an opinion of these candidates. However, since only 14% of respondents are undecided on Jeb Bush, his -28 net favorability is incredibly damning. Certainly, many associate Bush with his brother and father and may change their minds as they hear more about Jeb’s life story and policies, but he will be fighting an uphill battle in trying to do so.
The one potential downside to drawing inferences about the primary from net favorability is that net favorability reflects the entire American populace, and the primary only reflects Republicans. However, by many metrics, Bush is not more well liked among Republicans than others. For example, we can look at questions fielded by pollsters which are asking how Republicans would feel about each candidate winning the nomination. Each pollster asks this question in a slightly different way, so it is difficult to aggregate the results or compare them directly, but we can still examine each and draw a conclusion from them collectively. However, because each of the results is from a single sample of around 300-500 Republicans, they have a fairly large margin of error (~3-5%).
The first result comes from a poll fielded by CBS, which asks “Regardless of how you intend to vote in 2016, which one of these Republican presidential candidates would you be most dissatisfied with as the Republican nominee?” and the results are in the following chart.
While Bush is not the candidate that the most Republicans would be dissatisfied with, he is second only to Donald Trump. He also is the highest of any of the establishment candidates, a group which includes Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich Chris Christie, Scott Walker and Lindsey Graham.
We can look at another poll released by CNN which asks Republicans if they would be “Enthusiastic”, “Satisfied but not enthusiastic”, “Dissatisfied but not upset” or “Upset” with each candidate if that candidate won the nomination. Looking first at the net result of the negative responses, we notice that almost half of Republicans would be dissatisfied or upset if Jeb Bush were to win the nomination.
Bush leads the other candidates by 15%, outside of the margin of error of the poll (reported to be 4.5%). Similarly, when just looking at the percent of Republican voters who would be “Upset” with Jeb Bush’s nomination, Bush is leading, albeit by a smaller margin and within the margin of error.
The CBS and CNN poll indicate a high level of dissatisfaction that many Republicans would feel with the nomination of Jeb Bush. Not only would a Bush nomination be disliked by many Republicans, Bush also faces a ceiling in the level of support among Republicans he can gain. A poll by Quinnipiac asked “Are there any of these candidates you would definitely not support for the Republican nomination for president?” yielding the below results.
18% of Republicans said they would definitely not support Bush, and while he could win the nomination without 18% of the votes (Mitt Romney won 52% of Republican primary votes), the fact that so many voters are already ruling out supporting Bush this early in the campaign does not bode well for him. A poll by NBC/WSJ asking “For each one, please tell me, yes or no, if you could see yourself supporting that person for the Republican nomination for president in 2016.”, putting Bush more towards the middle of the pack, but still with 40% of Republicans saying they would not support him.
However, despite his being in the middle of the pack, Bush is still is ahead of all other leading establishment candidates except for Christie. Moreover, of the 11 candidates who will be debating on Wednesday, 5 of them are behind Christie, with Carson and Walker almost half of Bush’s result. Again, this does not by any means indicate that it is impossible for Bush to win, he can easily win with 40% of Republicans not supporting him, but it does severely limit the size of the base from which Bush can draw supporters, making his candidacy very difficult.
While it may seem like many things are going Jeb Bush’s way, from his $114 million war chest to his tentative frontrunner status in the endorsement primary, he is ultimately not that well liked by the general voting population and his own Republican party. Even if Jeb Bush does win the nomination, the lack of enthusiasm around his candidacy and the many Republicans who would never support Bush in the primaries may translate into a lack of excitement in the base during the general election. One of the biggest arguments for Bush is the electability argument, an argument which becomes moot if he fails to turn out Republican voters, let alone swing independents.
Right now, candidates like Carson, Fiorina and Trump are doing fairly well in the polls. However, these candidates are liked for their personality and not any set of substantive policies. As the first caucuses and primaries draw closer, the Republican elites will likely throw most of their weight behind a candidate, and this candidate will likely be an establishment candidate. Essentially, the elites will be choosing from Bush, Walker, Rubio, Christie and Kasich. But while the conventional wisdom seems to indicate they would throw their weight behind Bush, if these elites are looking at the same numbers as the ElectoralStatistics team is, they would do well to first recognize the myriad limitations that Bush faces in his quest to become the Republican nominee for president.