Recognition and Favorability of GOP2012 Candidates

The rise of Newt Gingrich over the past 10 days or so, now capped with a Manchester Union Leader endorsement, is the culmination of a months long rejuvenation process. In April Gingrich ran neck-and-neck with Mitt Romney in net favorability ratings (favorable minus unfavorable percent). Both touched +50 points in the spring, with Romney consistently a shade more positively viewed but with both well ahead of the rest of the GOP field. Then the great Gingrich meltdown occurred, with his net favorability collapsing between mid-May and July 1 from +38 to just +10, putting him dead last among the candidates at that time.

Through the summer one GOP candidate after another has surged to first place only to equally quickly collapse. Bachmann, Perry and Cain have each had their turn and their rise and fall are seen in the chart with recognition rising along with initial gains in net favorability only to then see sharp downturns. This, of course, mirrors their standing in the GOP nominee preferences as well.

But Gingrich’s path is somewhat different. His recognition levels have remained at the top of the field, along with Romney’s, at 80-90% with only the slightest of upward trends. This means none of the Gingrich favorability trend is due to new-found visibility, as it is for all the rest save Romney and (to a lesser degree) Paul. ┬áRather Gingrich’s trends show that even as a well known figure public affect for him is uniquely variable.

While others rose and fell, since his nadir in early July Gingrich has slowly but steadily rebuilt his support among Republican voters. From his low of +10 Gingrich has now risen to just a shade under +40, a whisker ahead of Romney for best net favorability among the field. And for the mercurial Gingrich it is notable that this success was achieved through steady progress rather than a sudden bounce.

Romney, like Gingrich, has maintained a steady level of recognition, rising only slightly from the low 80s to near 90 percent recognition. But Romney has suffered a modest but steady decline in net favorability since April, declining from +50 to just under +40. ┬áThat 10 point decline is modest compared to the fluctuations of other candidates, but it is perhaps all the more telling. Much of the discussion of Romney (including some of mine) has stressed his relative stability at 20-25 percent support for the nomination, with little apparent trend. That is true for nomination preference. But the gradual erosion of his net favorability suggests that the rise and fall of potential challengers has not been without some effect on Romney as well. As Republican voters have turned to candidate after candidate as an alternative, the cumulative effect seems to have hurt Romney’s attractiveness within the party. Not by a lot, to be sure, and with a still solid claim to a virtual tie for highest net favorability rating. But the trend is not what a front runner would prefer to see and it does not suggest a growing group of supporters within the primary electorate.

Gingrich received a lot of positive coverage for his debate performance Tuesday night, but his bold position on providing a legal status for long term non-legal immigrants was what got headlines and has been the focus of criticism by Michele Bachmann among others since. Most of the conventional wisdom is that this position will hurt him in Iowa, where a first place finish could propel him into a strong position as the alternative to Romney. The question is whether the rise in his favorability built back since July can now again suddenly decline, or whether the GOP in Iowa and elsewhere is willing to “let Newt be Newt” on this issue.

There are some nuances in the trends of net favorability, some due to changes in favorable responses while others are more due to changes in unfavorable attitudes. Here are those trends for those interested in digging a little deeper. The most notable feature is the simultaneous rise in favorable and decline in unfavorable ratings that drives the Gingrich net trend. For Romney, there is a milder decline in favorable and rise in unfavorable reviews behind his 10 point decline in net ratings.

Source: The data used here are from Gallup’s tracking of candidate favorability. I’ve scaled favorable and unfavorable for the entire population of GOP partisans and leaners, not just among those able to rate a candidate (which is what Gallup shows in its tables.) Using only those able to rate as the base can distort support for lesser known candidates who may have intense but few supporters.