In handicapping the emerging field of presidential candidates in both parties, it is wise to look at how they play among members of their own political party as compared to voters in the general electorate.
Such a comparison tells us which candidates run the risk of having the syndrome that doomed Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale and John Kerry — being so popular in their own party that they win the nomination but so unpopular among the general electorate that they can’t win the election. It will also indicate who falls victim to the syndrome that bedeviled John McCain in 2000 — being highly electable among the general population but lacking the popularity in his own party to secure the nomination.
Call it the Polarization factor. You derive it by subtracting a candidate’s favorability rating among independent voters from his or her ratings among voters of his own party.
Candidates who are much better-liked by their own party than by independents are highly polarizing. They can win the nomination but face big problems in November. But those who are not much more popular among their own party’s voters than they are among independents would be dynamic candidates in November but have problems winning the nomination. (Of course, a candidate who is loved by both his own party and independents is the ideal candidate, but we are talking about mere mortals here).
The Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll of Feb. 7-8 gives us the data to examine the possible candidates in light of their tendency to polarize the electorate. The Fox News poll asked respondents to rate the candidates on whether they would “make a good president or not.“ The following table compares the ratings of each candidate among the voters of his or her own party with the ratings among independents to derive the Polarization factor (Pf). Here’s how they stack up.
Hillary Clinton is the most polarizing figure tested. Her sky-high ratings among Democrats (82 percent) suggest that she is irresistible in the primaries and a likely bet to win the nomination. But her lower rating among independents shows that they don’t share the enthusiasm. As he amply illustrated in 2004, Kerry is as polarizing as Hillary, running 32 points better among Democrats than independents.
At the other end of the polarization spectrum is McCain, who draws favorable ratings from 57 percent of independents but only 64 percent from Republicans. These ratings indicate that McCain hasn’t solved the problem that handicapped him in 2000: He can be elected but not nominated.
In the Fox News survey, Rudy Giuliani stands out as the most popular Republican among voters of his own party while also ranking first among independents. The gap between the two ratings — only 18 points — illustrates how Giuliani differs sharply from McCain. He can be both nominated and elected. (Of course, one wonders how the Republican right will receive the news that he is pro-choice, pro-gun control and pro-affirmative action).
While Condoleezza Rice gets lower marks than Giuliani among both Republicans and independents — in part because people do not yet see her as a candidate — she clearly would be a candidate who does not polarize the electorate in the way Hillary and Kerry do.
(Apologies to Frist, Allen, et al., but they were not in the Fox News poll).
All of this underscores the essential point that a party is in real trouble when it is in the grip of a candidate who is certain to be nominated but is hard to elect (Hillary). On the other hand, a party that has a candidate who can win the election but not the nomination (McCain) is squandering a key opportunity.