Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush now leads the field of Republican candidates for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination, but former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton enjoys a decided advantage over Bush and other potential GOP rivals in hypothetical general election matchups, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
At this early stage in the 2016 competition, the prospective candidates suffer from image weaknesses, but the Republicans have a more acute problem. Most Republicans are not well known, but at this point, not a single one of six Republicans included in the survey has a favorability rating that is net positive.
Bush — by far the best known among those running for the GOP nomination — is viewed favorably by just 33 percent of the public, while 53 percent say they view him unfavorably. Only Clinton among all those included in the poll has a net positive rating, but by the slender margin of three percentage points (49-46 percent). Her favorability rating has dropped nine points in the past year and 18 points since she left the State Department in 2013.
Clinton stands now as the leading contender in either party for the White House, with no serious opposition at this point in the race for the Democratic nomination. But as she prepares to launch her campaign, she emerges also as a polarizing figure, with huge differences in the way she is perceived by Republicans and Democrats.
Overall, she is seen as a strong leader and as someone with new ideas for the country. But on questions of honesty and trustworthiness, as well as on whether she understands people’s problems or shares the values of average Americans, the public is split almost evenly pro and con.
In the contest for the Republican nomination, Bush tops the field with 20 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents saying they would support him if their primary or caucus were held today. He is followed by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at 13 percent and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at 12 percent. Five other Republicans receive at least 6 percent support, with an additional six candidates at either 2 or 1 percent. Bush, Cruz and Walker are the only three to register noticeable gains since the last Post-ABC survey on the GOP race in December.
Bush, who faces potential resistance from some Republicans for his stands on immigration and Common Core school standards, enjoys his strongest support among moderate and liberal Republicans and among those who say they are “somewhat conservative.”
Bush has been on an aggressive pace to stockpile funds for his candidacy and appears to have benefited from decisions by 2012 nominee Mitt Romney and 2012 vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) to stay out of the race. His 20 percent support level, hardly an indication of dominance, underscores potential challenges ahead. However, one in three Republicans say they think Bush will be their party’s nominee.
The survey was taken in the days after Cruz became the first Republican to formally announce for president. The former Texas solicitor general, running unabashedly as the true conservative in the race, enjoys his greatest support among the most conservative Republicans. Walker, who began rising after a well-received speech in Iowa in January, enjoys about equal support among those who say they are somewhat conservative and those who say they are very conservative.
Nearly all the Republican candidates are viewed favorably within their own party. Bush, Walker, Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who will formally launch his campaign April 13, are viewed positively by margins of about 26 points among self-identified Republicans. Paul, who will announce Tuesday, has a 13-point positive-to-negative rating in his party.
Meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, once regarded as a top-tier prospect for the nomination, has a major image problem within his party as well as with the public at large. He is viewed favorably by 38 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents and unfavorably by 41 percent. Among all Americans, 51 percent have an unfavorable impression of Christie, topped only by Bush’s 53 percent.
While Clinton’s image is stronger than those of Republicans, perceptions of her honesty and empathy have eroded as she has moved toward a 2016 presidential candidacy. Since last measured in June, as she began her tour to promote her State Department memoir, she has suffered a seven-point slip in perceptions of her honesty and an identical fall on the question of whether she understands the problems “of people like you.” Almost all of the decline came from more negative assessments among Republicans.
The poll was taken in the wake of controversy over her use of a private e-mail account and server while secretary of state and after reports that she deleted 30,000 personal e-mails and had the server wiped clean. But because the current poll comes nine months after the previous survey gauging Clinton’s image, the shift cannot be completely attributed to recent revelations. Other public surveys show a steady decline beforehand, but also find negative reactions to her personal e-mail use.
Over the same time period, she has seen no significant change in perceptions of her leadership or as a politician with new ideas. More than six in 10 say she is a strong leader, and a smaller majority say she has new ideas for the country’s future.
The differences between how Republicans and Democrats assess her on these questions is substantial. For example, almost nine in 10 Democrats see her as a strong leader, while seven in 10 Republicans do not. Three in four Democrats see her as empathetic while almost nine in 10 Republicans do not.
Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, Clinton continues to hold a commanding lead in the competition for her party’s presidential nomination. She has a 6-1 advantage over Vice President Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, neither of whom has announced plans to run. Those who have expressed interest — former Virginia senator James Webb, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley and Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) — are in the low single digits.
Tested against four possible Republicans in a general election — Bush, Cruz, Walker and Rubio — Clinton holds double-digit leads in every case. Bush does marginally better than the others, but trails by 53 to 41 percent among registered voters, while Cruz runs weakest at 54 to 37percent.
A majority of Americans say that a candidate’s experience is most important to them, while 37 percent say someone who would chart a new direction is what they prefer. That could help both Clinton and Bush, the two best-known and experienced candidates.
Through much of 2008, when then-Sen. Barack Obama was running a forward-looking campaign against Clinton in the Democratic primaries, people were more evenly split over whether they preferred strength and experience or a candidate with new ideas pushing in a new direction.
However, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, just before Obama scored his breakthrough victory, experience was more highly praised, suggesting that a new generation candidate who takes hold could alter that balance as the 2016 campaign unfolds.
Both Clinton and Bush would be running to extend their family’s history in the White House. For Clinton, this appears to be a more significant asset. Over seven in 10 Americans say they now approve of the way former president Bill Clinton handled his job in office, while not quite half say the same about former president George W. Bush.
The Post-ABC poll was conducted March 26 to 29 among a random national sample of 1,003 adults interviewed by telephone, including 335 cellphone-only respondents. The overall margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points; the error margin is 5.5 points among both the samples of 444 Republicans and GOP-leaning independents and 446 Democratic and Democratic-leaning independents.
Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.