The first ballots of the 2016 campaign won’t be cast for nearly a year but the contours of the race are already coming into focus.
There are plenty of caveats to poll-reading at this early stage of the political cycle – many candidates are still unknown and the sentiment in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire carry much more weight than national statistics.
Still, national polls do offer an important snapshot of how the public views each of the candidates right now — and the campaigns are using that insight to shape their early agendas. At this point in the race, it’s clear that the Republican side of the race is far from gelling while Democrats – including liberals – are solidifying behind Hillary Clinton.
But beyond the top-line horserace numbers, a peek under the hood of Monday’s CNN/ORC poll reveals some intriguing trends about the 2016 race. Here are some highlights:
1. Marco Rubio got a bounce. Rand Paul did not.
Even though he announced his presidential campaign on April 7, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s standing among Republicans (11%) actually declined by one point since the last CNN/ORC poll in mid-March. So much for that announcement bounce.
Marco Rubio, though, juiced his numbers following his announcement in Miami last week. The Florida senator is now polling at 11% among GOP voters, an increase from 7% last week and just 3% last November.
The numbers suggest that Rubio’s rollout, which included several media interviews, was an error-free success that impressed Republicans and reminded them of his relative youth, charisma, speaking abilities and dexterity with an often-hostile media. Importantly, he was also able to break through near-saturation level coverage of Hillary Clinton’s long-awaited announcement.
That 11% number is far from frontrunner status — his former mentor Jeb Bush is in the lead at 17% — but Rubio is now back in the conversation among Republicans who wrote him off throughout 2014. He took that momentum with him to a New Hampshire GOP summit over the weekend, where he was one of the most celebrated speakers among the many Republicans who attended.
2. The fundamentals of Bush’s numbers are strong
Bush is hardly a bullet-proof GOP frontrunner at 17%, and Rubio presented himself last week as a fresh-faced and credible rival who will have to be taken seriously by that other campaign across town in Miami.
But it appears Bush’s lead might be built on more than just his famous, if controversial, last name. On a range of qualities — leadership, experience, electability — Bush has even wider leads among his Republican opponents.
Among Republicans, 21% said Bush “would be the strongest leader,” 18% said “he cares the most about people like you,” 26% said he has “the best chance of beating the Democratic nominee” next year, and 27% said he has “the right experience to be president.” No one else in the GOP field comes close to those numbers.
The former Florida governor still must quell doubts among conservatives about some of his positions and big-tent rhetoric. Unlike his opponents, most Republicans know who Bush is, and he’s still not cracking 20% of the GOP vote. But Bush is starting off on firmer ground than his opponents — and they know it.
3. Christie is still in the game
At first glance, Chris Christie 2016 looks like a non-starter. After a miserable winter full of self-inflicted political wounds — vaccinations, anyone? — Christie seems to have fallen off the radar nationally, coming in at just 4% in the CNN/ORC poll.
But look again: Christie is the second choice of 11% of Republicans, suggesting that he’s still in the mix and has a chance to prove himself to skeptical Republicans. In other words, Christie is still on their minds.
Christie’s numbers are actually higher in New Hampshire, where his advisers believe he can re-build his standing by taking his town hall act to one town after another in the style of John McCain, who resurrected his left-for-dead campaign in the state back in 2008. It’s a tough road ahead, but the media-savvy Christie is one of the best political performers in the Republican field. He is not to be dismissed.
4. Clinton gets stronger without Warren in the field
Because Elizabeth Warren is — gasp! — not running for president, CNN/ORC decided not to include Elizabeth Warren’s name in the Democratic mix in this poll, the first time that’s been the case this cycle. Conventional wisdom — often wrong, of course — holds that the progressive Warren would be the ideal challenger to Clinton from the left.
But Clinton actually runs stronger in the poll when Warren is left off the list of candidates and potential candidates. In March, Clinton was the choice of 62% of Democrats, to Warren’s 10%. Without Warren, Clinton’s support among Democrats jumps seven points — to 69%.
Clinton’s poll numbers undoubtedly spiked thanks to the tremendous media buzz swirling around her 2016 campaign announcement last week. But the fact that a good chunk of Warren’s support has moved in Clinton’s direction undercuts the notion that the left is wholly uncomfortable with her becoming the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer. It will be up to her other likely challengers — Martin O’Malley, Bernie Sanders and Jim Webb — to remind Democrats of why they should be skeptical of Clinton redux.
5. But is Clinton honest and trustworthy?
Clinton scores high marks on a number of qualities. Almost 90 percent of Democrats see her as being “strong and decisive,” having a vision, and caring “about people like you.” More than 80% say she represents “the future of the Democratic Party” — quite a feat for someone who has been involved with politics for almost 40 years.
But Clinton’s numbers dip on a key question: On the topic of whether she is “honest and trustworthy,” Clinton hits a ceiling of 75%. That’s a high number to be sure, but it hints at a potential weak spot for Clinton among Democrats — especially as the story about her personal email use as Secretary of State continues to percolate. Among all voters, a recent Quinnipiac poll of swing states showed her ratings on that quality to be even worse: Majorities in Iowa, Colorado and Virginia said she was not honest and trustworthy.
Both Bill and Hillary Clinton have long been hounded by accusations that they dance around the truth, keep secrets and aren’t up front with voters. Polling, it seems, still bears that out. And it’s a prime reason that O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland who is hoping to pick up progressive support, has spent the last week reminding anyone who will listen that Clinton has changed her positions over the years on issues like immigration and same-sex marriage.