It’s getting to be a pattern during this presidential campaign. I promise myself that I’ll lay off writing about the polls, in part because it’s still so early in the process, but largely because they’re sending such confused messages. And then right afterwards, a new poll comes out that’s so (apparently) confused that it just begs to be written about. Here’s what I mean.
Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal and NBC News made headlines with their latest joint survey of the Democratic and Republican presidential races. When it came to the GOP, the media coverage understandably emphasized the main horse race finding that Ben Carson had forged ahead of Donald Trump to become the front-runner for the nomination among respondents who stated they would vote in a Republican presidential primary. Trump had held the lead since July. (Actually, two other surveys this week – here and here – showed Trump still out in front, but for some reason, they attracted little attention.)
The Journal-NBC poll’s “internals” were highly encouraging for Carson as well. For example, the prominent neuro-surgeon also cemented his position as the leading second presidential choice of Republican voters, and in fact widened his lead in this respect over Trump. In addition, Carson was way ahead of the field in terms of his acceptability. Only 18 percent of the declared Republican voters stated that they “could not see” supporting Carson. That level not only tied for his best showing since the pollsters began asking the question about him in March. It was far ahead of the next best “unacceptability” rating – Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s 32 percent – which was, strangely, up from March’s 26 percent.
Trump’s unacceptability was, with former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina’s, tied for third, with 37 percent – just behind Texas Senator Ted Cruz’ 34 percent. But Trump’s unacceptability ratings were more than twice as good as March’s 74 percent, while Fiorina’s were somewhat worse and Cruz’ were only slightly better. The least acceptable Republican candidate, incidentally, was South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. Reflecting his exceptionally poor overall polling, fully 68 percent of Republican voters said they couldn’t conceive of backing him. And as for former front-runner (or presumed front-runner) Jeb Bush? The former Florida Governor’s 52 percent unacceptable rating represented its first rise over the 50 percent level since March.
Other results were stranger still. When asked to name which candidate they considered likeliest to win the GOP nomination regardless of their own personal preferences, Trump came in at Number One, at 36 percent. Carson was considered second likeliest, at 25 percent, followed by Bush at 11 percent (even though he was first choice of only eight percent). Only two other hopefuls, Rubio at nine percent and Cruz at six percent, topped the one percent figure.
Trump did nearly as well when those Republican voters were asked which candidate stood the best chance of defeating a Democratic rival (who was not named) in the general election. Thirty-two percent liked his odds of victory, versus 25 percent for Carson and 12 for Rubio. All of the other candidates were in the single digits.
We can also learn a lot about the electorate by looking at the characteristics they say see most prominently in the various candidates – though the Journal-NBC survey only examines Trump, Bush, and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
For Trump, he scores best among voters overall for “being effective and getting things done.” Nearly half (48 percent) of all voters surveyed agreed that this phrase applied to the real estate magnate, and fully 72 percent of Republicans viewed him as “can do.” Oddly, although Bush is running based largely on his record as a big-state governor, the voters don’t seem unduly impressed. Only 25 percent of all voters and only 38 percent of GOP respondents gave him high marks for effectiveness. Bush fared better on the experience front – 43 percent of all voters said he had the background and knowledge for the job, and 57 percent of Republicans agreed.
Trump’s biggest seeming weakness, according to the survey? Only 14 percent of all voters believed he has “the right temperament” to be president, and only 24 percent of Republican voters agreed. Bush scored worst in the survey for sharing his positions with the nation. Only 21 percent of all voters and 34 percent of Republican voters credited him with performing well in this respect.
And what about Clinton? The former Secretary of State, New York Senator, and First Lady rated highest for experience, with 42 percent of all voters and 74 percent of Democrats declaring themselves impressed with her on this ground. Among all voters, then, she scored a bit higher than Bush and nearly twice as high as Trump per this metric. Not surprisingly, given the persistent questions surrounding her handling of classified materials and the activities of the Clinton Foundation, Clinton scored worst on “being honest and straightforward.”
The Journal-NBC survey is also chock full of data on subjects not directly related to the presidential race.
To me, these two findings stood out. First, even though the nation’s chattering classes believe that the unruliness of Republicans in the House of Representatives has been nearly disastrous for the party’s brand, the overall public is evenly split on which party they want to see controlling the Congress after the upcoming elections.
Second, although the national political conventional wisdom has long held that Americans hate Congress overall but like their own representatives, fully 57 percent of all voters told the pollsters that it’s time to give a new person a chance in their House district. Only 35 percent believed that their representative deserved reelection. Moreover, this has been a majority or strong plurality position going back to 1992. That sure puts the great recent success rate of Congressional incumbents in a striking new light.
One methodological note: The margin of error for both the Democratic and Republican primary voters in this Journal-NBC survey is plus-or-minus 4.90 percent – which seems awfully high. What else can you say at this point but “Hang on”?