June 2, 2011

Republican Candidates Stir Little Enthusiasm

Section 1: The 2012 Election

Barack Obama continues to fare well against a generic Republican opponent in the 2012 general election. Nearly half (48%) of registered voters say they would like to see Barack Obama reelected, while 37% say they would prefer to see a Republican candidate win in 2012. This is virtually unchanged from March.

This 11-point edge is comparable to the 14-point advantage George W. Bush held in April 2003, when 48% said they would like to see him reelected and 34% said they would prefer to see a Democrat win. At that time, the Iraq war was viewed very favorably, and Bush’s overall job approval rating among the public stood at 72%. By comparison, Obama’s enjoys a much more modest 52% approval rating in the current survey.

Voter preferences continue to follow the same patterns seen in the 2008 election outcome – Obama holds commanding leads among minorities, young people, and low income Americans, but trails by substantial margins among whites – particularly white men and working-class whites. But critically, Obama holds a slim 42% to 35% edge against an unnamed Republican challenger among independents.  This, too, is virtually unchanged from March (40%-34%), and mirrors the margin by which he won independents according to the 2008 exit polls (52% vs. 44% for McCain).

Prospects for Possible GOP Candidates

At this early stage of the 2012 presidential election Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney stand-out as the most widely recognized candidates by Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters. But while highly visible, many say there is “no chance” they will vote for Palin or Gingrich; somewhat fewer have ruled out voting for Mitt Romney.

Sarah Palin is nearly unanimously recognized by Republican and Republican-leaning voters – 98% say they have heard of her. Of those familiar with Palin, more say there is no chance they would vote for her (39%) than say there is a good chance (24%); 33% say there is some chance they would vote for the former Alaska governor. Palin does worse among independents who lean Republican (49% no chance) than she does among self-described Republicans (35% no chance).

Mitt Romney elicits somewhat more positive responses from Republican voters than do other highly visible Republicans. Among those who have heard of him 75%  say there is a good chance (32%) or some chance (43%) they would vote for Romney if he is a candidate in 2012, just 18% say there is no chance they would vote for the former Massachusetts governor.

Newt Gingrich is also widely recognized – 90% have heard of him – but just 16% say there is a good chance they will vote for him if he is a candidate for president; 39% say there is some chance, 38% no chance.

While not widely known, Herman Cain enjoys broad support among the 44% of Republican and Republican-leaning independents who have heard of him: 74% say there is either a good chance (39%) or some chance (35%) they would vote for him; 18% say there is no chance.

Interest in 2012 Candidates

Overall, six-in-ten voters (60%) say they are paying a lot (27%) or some (33%) attention to the candidates who may be running for president in 2012. Compared to roughly the same time period in the 2008 election cycle – a contest where both parties had primary elections – interest is somewhat lower: in June of 2007, 68% were paying at least some attention to potential candidates in the 2008 election.

Interest in the presidential candidates among Republican and Republican-leaning voters is as high today as at a nearly comparable point in the 2008 campaign. Currently, 67% of Republican and GOP-leaning voters say they have given at least some thought to the candidates; in June 2007, 68% of these voters had done so. Interest among Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters is lower than at about this point in the last campaign (57% a lot/some thought today vs. 70% then).

Republican voters who agree with the Tea Party are much more engaged by the presidential race than are GOP voters who have no opinion of the Tea Party or disagree with the movement.

Fully 81% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters who agree with the Tea Party have given at least some thought to the presidential candidates and 46% have given them a lot of thought. Among GOP voters who have no opinion of or disagree with the Tea Party, 55% have given the candidates at least some thought and just 16% have given the 2012 contenders a lot of thought.

So-So Ratings for GOP Field, But It’s Early

Republican and Republican-leaning voters do not have a very positive view of their party’s presidential candidates: 44% say as a group, the candidates running for the Republican nomination are excellent or good, while 43% say they are only fair or poor.

But these ratings are only slightly more negative than GOP voters’ views of the party’s presidential field in September 2007. At that time, 49% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters said the GOP candidates were excellent or good while 44% said they were only fair or poor.

And as the 2008 campaign progressed, Republican voters subsequently came to view their party’s candidates more favorably. By January 2008, 67% said the GOP candidates were excellent or good compared with 31% who said they were only fair or poor.

Democratic voters had much more positive views of their party’s candidates throughout the 2008 campaign. In September 2007, 64% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters rated the Democratic field as excellent or good and by January 2008, 78% expressed a positive opinion of the candidates.

But in 2004, Democratic voters began with a fairly lukewarm impression of their party’s candidates, and those opinions changed little as the campaign continued. In September 2003, 44% rated the Democratic field as excellent or good; by January 2004, 47% of Democratic voters expressed positive views of their party’s candidates.

The Tea Party Primary

Tea Party Republicans are not only are more engaged by the 2012 candidates, they are also have more positive opinions of the GOP field. Most Tea Party Republican and Republican-leaning independents (55%) rate the prospective GOP field as either excellent (7%) or good (48%). By comparison, just 36% of non-Tea Party Republicans give the GOP candidates an excellent or good rating.

Reflecting the intense political engagement of Republican voters who agree with the Tea Party, substantial majorities have heard of even the lesser known possible GOP candidates, such as Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum and Herman Cain. Roughly two-thirds or more Republican Tea Party supporters have heard of these candidates. Among Republican and Republican-leaning voters who do not agree with the Tea Party, fewer than half heard of these candidates.

In most cases, individual GOP candidates receive more support from Tea Party Republicans than from non-Tea Party Republicans – in some instances dramatically more support.

For instance, among GOP voters who agree with the Tea Party and have heard of Michele Bachmann, 34% say there is a good chance they would vote for her; that compares with just 11% of Republican voters who do not agree with the Tea Party and have heard of Bachmann. And while Herman Cain is not well known enough among non-Tea Party Republicans to measure support for his candidacy, 51% of Tea Party Republicans who are familiar with him say there is a good chance they would vote for him in 2012 if he were a candidate.