The Emerson College poll released this week confirmed once again why the Republican Party is so eager to topple the Donald Trump bandwagon. Among the poll sampling of 1,043 likely voters that mirrored the turnout profile from the 2012 general election, the New York billionaire and reality TV star was viewed unfavorably by more than 60 percent of the electorate. Matched against his favorable rating of 34.5 percent, the Emerson College poll suggested that Trump has a "fav-unfav" rating of negative 26.1.
The fav-unfav rating, like the right track-wrong track rating, has long been a key metric in political polling. A high net favorable rating is a strong indicator of electoral performance, a high net negative bodes the opposite. Opposition research is critical in politics for the simple reason that it is often easier to increase the negative perception of your opponent than to increase the positive perception of yourself.
Over the past month, the Never Trump movement has catalyzed around Ted Cruz as its knight in shining armor to take down the Donald, or at least to keep him from winning a first ballot nomination in Cleveland. The motivations behind the Never Trump movement are myriad; its coalition partners begin with establishment Republicans and major donors and extends in any and all directions from there. There are those who simply believe that if nominated, Trump will be pummeled in the fall by Hillary. There are those who dread the down ballot impact, the prospect of losing the Senate, and -- God forbid -- the House. There are the movement conservatives who decry the fact that Trump is not a conservative in good standing, or perhaps not even a Republican at all. There are the neoconservatives who fear Trump's appeal to isolationism and apparent willingness to cede regional hegemony to Russia and China. And then there are those who simply believe that, on his own merits, Donald Trump is an odious candidate.
With Trump's loss to Cruz in Wisconsin, the Never Trump movement had come close to accomplishing its purposes. In the intervening days, it has become the new conventional wisdom that even with strong performances in New York and states across the northeast over the next several weeks, Donald Trump cannot achieve a first ballot victory in Cleveland, and that if he fails to win on the first ballot, he has no prospect of winning the Republican nomination.
Just as it is on the cusp of achieving its goal, participants in the Never Trump movement are about to come face-to-face with its unintended consequences. And thus will be born the Never Cruz movement. Even as the GOP establishment moved against Trump, the fear of an empowered Ted Cruz must have loomed in the darkest reaches of their fevered imaginations. Never Trump was a practical imperative, but Never Cruz remains the deeper, far more personal passion. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example prefers not to have Trump on the ticket -- he wants to hold onto his job, after all, and losing the Senate would cost him dearly. But President Ted Cruz? Dante Alighieri could have imagined no greater torment for McConnell and his caucus.
The irony buried in the cross tabs of the Emerson College poll is that in Ted Cruz, the GOP may have turned to a candidate that may yet make Donald Trump look like the safer choice. While the Emerson College poll suggests that Trump is viewed unfavorably by 60.6 percent of the likely voters, Cruz is viewed unfavorably by 70.3 percent. Where Trump is viewed favorably by 34.5 percent of the likely voters, Cruz is viewed favorably by only 22.3 percent. Trump's fav-unfav rating of negative 26.1 looks positively sunny compared to Ted Cruz's rating of negative 48.0.
According to RealClear Politics, which tracks these things over time, Donald Trump's average favorable/unfavorable rating is -35.1, or somewhat worse than the Emerson College rating. If you look back over the nine month arc of the primary season, Trump's rating has been consistently negative. When he first announced his candidacy, he came out of the gate at a negative 49, and since then hast tended to hover in the range of -15 to -35.
Not so with Ted Cruz. He started out the gate in slightly positive territory, and over the ensuing months hovered in slightly negative terrain, -5 to -15, for most of the campaign. This seemed to be a remarkably positive rating for a man who was uniquely reviled among his peers in the U.S Senate. As one Republican commentator suggested when asked about Cruz's relatively sanguine net unfavorability rating, give it time, voters just haven't gotten to know him yet. Indeed, over the past month or so, as Cruz has moved to center stage, his net negative rating has steadily declined into the -25 to -35 range. At -48, the Emerson College rating could be an outlier, or it could be a signal of worse things to come for the Texas senator.
Even as they have endured the turmoil of their own nomination fight, Republicans have been salivating at the prospect of running against Hillary Clinton in the fall. Clinton is widely viewed as a weak general election candidate, for reasons that have become evident in Bernie Sanders' successful challenge. She has problems with trust and honesty--two factors reflected in the fav/unfav metric--and, like Cruz, her standing in the public eye has deteriorated over the course of the campaign. A year ago, Clinton's fav/unfav ratings were consistently strong, in the range of positive 15 to positive 35. Then, in the face of continued attacks from the GOP over her email and Benghazi, and not doubt in large measure due to Sanders' (+5.3 fav/unfav, btw) unrelenting assault on her character, her fav/unfav rating as gone south, and now has settled into solidly negative terrain, in the range of -10 to -15.
But, notwithstanding Hillary's problems, the success of Never Trump and the rise of Cruz appear to have distinctly benefited Democrat prospects in the fall, if prediction betting sites are to be believed. For months, predication sites held steady at giving the Democrats a 60-65 percent chance of winning in the fall. With the advent of Never Trump and the rise of Ted Cruz, even as Hillary's negative rating settled into negative territory, the odds turned steadily stronger in Democrats favor. Since the beginning of March, the odds of a Democrat victory in the fall have increased steadily to nearly 75percent. It should be small comfort to Democrats, however, that they appear to have the upper hand while their candidate is viewed increasingly unfavorably across the voting public.
Over the past several months, the focus of the GOP establishment has been on stopping Donald Trump. Those efforts bolstered Ted Cruz's prospects of winning the nomination, and since the beginning of March, the likelihood of Cruz winning the nomination, as measured by online prediction sites, rose from 15 percent to over 40 percent. But as the stop Trump phase of the primary campaign comes to an end, a new story line will likely emerge. It has been barely a month since the Never Trump forces coalesced, and yet very soon many of those who joined the fray under the banner of Ted Cruz to stop Donald Trump will turn against their white knight. This is the fairy tail scenario that John Kasich -- with his +10.8 fav/unfav rating -- believes will carry him to the nomination. A Kasich victory in Cleveland seems unlikely, but so does the prospect of anyone but Trump or Cruz winning the nomination, lest total havoc ensue.
Over the past week or so, the prospects of Ted Cruz winning the nomination, as measured by online prediction sites, soured a bit, falling to 31 percent. Donald Trump, meanwhile, got some of his mojo back. After falling to below 50 percent in the wake of his Wisconsin defeat, the likelihood of a Trump nomination as suggested by prediction sites is back up to 60 percent. For his part, Kasich is at 8 percent, while Paul Ryan, who tried best this week at a Shermanesque disavowal of his interest in the nomination, is at 83 to 1, or barely 1 percent. Marco Rubio is hanging in there at less than 1 percent, or 166-1 odds. Mitt Romney, for those who care, is at 250-1.
While Donald Trump's high negatives have been a continuing topic of conversation over the course of this election season, fav/unfav ratings have not been discussed as a determinative factor as much as they were earlier on in the campaign. Perhaps that is because the focus on Trump and his remarkably high negatives distracted attention from the strongly negative fav/unfav ratings garnered by other candidates. But as the spotlight has swung to Ted Cruz, his net negative fav/unfav rating has crept up into Trumpian territory.
In contrast with her prospective GOP rivals, Hillary Clinton's negative fav/unfav rating, as bad as it is, just doesn't yet seem to be as much of a factor. It is an odd way to view a campaign, but as the online prediction sites seem to suggest, Hillary's prospects of winning in the fall can remain high even as her fav/unfav rating remains negative, as long as the candidates that she is prospectively running against are viewed more negatively by the voting public than she is.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at jayduret.com.