Almost half of Republican primary voters -- 45% -- said they could not see themselves supporting Kentucky Senator Rand Paul for president in a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. Plus, 49% said they could see themselves supporting him, for an overall ranking of tenth among the sixteen candidates tested.
a. The sample in the poll was tiny -- only 236 likely Republican primary voters, reliable basically only for order of magnitude conclusions; and
b. The poll's methodology was weird but interesting. Instead of asking respondents for whom they would vote or whether they had a favorable or an unfavorable opinion on each candidate, they asked if you could see yourself voting for him or if you couldn't see yourself backing him.
Of course, that's not how primary voters vote. A candidate with a dedicated core of strong supporters (like a Paul or a Trump) could do very well despite large numbers that couldn't vote for him.
But the poll does give us a kind of "radioactivity index" telling us who would have problems with the bulk of the GOP electorate. These candidates had high negatives:
• George Pataki = 13-44 (-31)
• Lindsay Graham = 27-49 (-22)
• Chris Christie = 36-55 (-19)
• John Kasich = 25-30 (-5)
• Carly Fiorina = 31-29 (-2)
• Rand Paul 49-45 = (+4)
• Rick Santorum = 49-41 (-8)
The least offensive candidates were Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Scott Walker.
Most Broadly Liked Candidates
• Marco Rubio = 74-15 (+59)
• Jeb Bush = 75-22 (+53)
• Scott Walker = 57-19 (+38)
• Mike Huckabee = 65-32 (+33)
The surprise here is Huckabee.
The fact that only less than a third of the electorate wouldn't vote for him, while two-thirds could, shows that his Fox News gig has helped him broaden his acceptability and that his populist anti-Wall Street rhetoric has replaced the purely Evangelical themes that had animated his previous candidacy.
Rubio and Bush can take comfort from their broad acceptability, but both suffer from the problem of not having a hard enough edge to get first place votes. They are the clear default choices, but that is for the second round and being the default choice won't help you get there. Both need to harden their rhetoric and sharpen their issue positions to attract enough first place votes to compete with the rest of the field.
Scott Walker seems to have the best of both worlds -- broad acceptability and hard positions that win him first round votes based on his splendid performance in subduing the unions in Wisconsin.
Then, in between, are the rest of the candidates: Not radioactive, but not winning broad support either:
• Ben Carson = 50-21 (+29)
• Rick Perry = 53-31 (+22)
• Ted Cruz = 51-31 (+20)
• Bobby Jindal = 36-28 (+8)
Cruz doesn't belong this far down on the list. He has faded in recent months and needs to use the coming battles over ObamaCare to move up to the top tier.
But, again, it's only 236 interviews so don't make too much of it. The two conclusions I would draw, despite the small sample, are the radioactivity of Rand Paul and the broad acceptability of Rubio, Bush, and Walker.