The 2016 elections certainly aren’t going to be a popularity contest.
In fact, the current crop of White House hopefuls is among the least liked by voters in recent history, with many starting out with very high negative ratings.
Usually such numbers spell doom for candidates, but it’s a problem across the board for this field — and a marked change from previous presidential cycles.
“This is a time when people are unhappy with politicians and Washington, and people feel frustrated,” said Iowa-based pollster J. Ann Selzer. “The mood of the nation is negative.”
That was certainly borne out in last month’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Hillary Clinton’s numbers continued to be upside down, with a net negative rating of 11 points. It’s a troublesome trend the Democratic front-runner has tried to shake, even airing new, softer biographical spots that talk about her mother’s rough childhood.
But she’s hardly alone. The candidate with the highest negatives by far is billionaire businessman Donald Trump — who is nonetheless currently leading in every GOP poll. He may have captured a quarter of the Republican electorate, but he remains off-putting for voters overall. He has a 30-point net negative rating, as just 26 percent of voters had a positive view of him while 56 percent held a negative view.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, still trying to shake his brother’s shadow, is at a net negative 14 points. Also in the red are New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose favorability took a hit amid the Bridgegate scandal, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is beloved by the Tea Party but a polarizing figure otherwise.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also start out with negative ratings too. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker nearly breaks even, but a plurality still doesn’t have an opinion of him.
Among Republicans tested by the poll, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich had net positive ratings, but Kasich remains largely unknown.
It’s Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, the insurgent Democratic candidate, who has the highest ratings among voters, with a 5-point net positive rating. It’s not huge, but it speaks to the niche he’s been able to tap into with his message. Sanders, like Kasich, is still relatively little known nationally.
General disapproval hasn’t always been the case with presidential candidates. At the close of the 20th century, the economy was surging and the country was hopeful, and that was reflected in the upcoming elections. In September 1999, the comparable point in the presidential cycle of 2000, eventual winner George W. Bush had soaring approvals, as did another Republican hopeful, Red Cross President (and later North Carolina senator) Elizabeth Dole. Publishing executive Steve Forbes also had a net positive rating of 9 points.
Only then-Vice President Al Gore started off with a negative view, hampered by his time in the Clinton White House. But even Gore’s deficit was minimal. His Democratic rival, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, had a high 20-point net positive rating. (It didn’t help him much, as Gore wrapped up the nomination early in the primaries.)
The positive attitude of the public remained, for the most part, throughout the next decade. Remarkably, in the run-up to the 2008 elections, nearly every candidate began in positive territory, including Clinton. Even those seen more negatively at the beginning, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and then-Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, were within the margin of error.
Candidates who represented hope — primarily then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama — did the best in the poll. The eventual winner had a 17-point net positive rating, and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who spoke of uniting “two Americas,” had a high positive rating as well. For Republicans, it was former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a symbol of perseverance after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, who was atop GOP ratings at this stage of the 2008 race.
But in 2011, something changed — the electorate became more polarized, the economy got worse and distrust of the government and Congress grew. Every candidate tested by NBC/Wall Street Journal in September 2011 had a negative rating, with Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann suffering the worst — even as she finished first in the Iowa Straw Poll. Bachmann would finish last in Iowa and drop out after.
Now in 2015, the country is even more polarized and Americans’ regard for government is at an all-time low. According to Republican pollster David Winston, it’s a symptom of how voters view politicians in general, not just these specific candidates.
“We’ve seen probably the longest extended negative attitude about the direction of the country that I can remember,” Winston said.
Now, he says, the challenge is for candidates to not just lift their own ratings but to get people optimistic about the direction of the country.
“I think everyone is getting painted with that brush because the political discourse is so unsatisfactory,” Winston said. “That’s the challenge to the candidates on both sides — how do they turn this discourse into something that is actually meaningful for the electorate.”
Selzer, the nonpartisan Iowa-based pollster, said the rise of social media is partly to blame for the growing negative shift.
“There are just far more outlets for people to learn far more and often, with a negative tone to it,” she said. “The civility that used to accompany news coverage of presidential candidates is now in competition with other approaches.”
But, Selzer said, that doesn’t mean that voters won’t eventually pick one of these candidates, even if they suffer from sustained negative ratings.
“People are able to hold what seem like incongruous thoughts and dislike them and still vote for them,” she argued. “They’d rather have a Republican they hate than a Democrat they despise, and vice versa.”