Much has been made about the favorability, or more notably, the lack thereof, of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Along with all of the other aspects that the 2016 presidential election has "rewritten" in terms of how we normally expect campaigns to play out, this year’s election is shaping up as one of "who do the voters detest the least?"
In looking at Hillary Clinton’s unfavorable numbers, before April 2015, the former secretary of state and first lady had a positive favorable rating, albeit with relatively high unfavorable numbers. But the same month that she announced her bid for the White House, her unfavorable numbers moved higher and the Democratic contender saw the spread widen between her negative and positive numbers, culminating in the most recent polling of around 55 percent unfavorable to 40 percent favorable.
This would seem to be a catastrophic condition for any presidential candidate—if not for the other candidate having even deeper negatives.
Donald Trump has managed to garner among the highest unfavorable ratings of any presidential candidate, with the only exception being Ross Perot in 1992 who had a two-thirds unfavorable rating. Trump began his presidential campaign in June 2015, with a 69 percent unfavorable in the first poll taken of his fledgling White House bid. While he has managed at times to lessen the unfavorable rating, his current numbers have settled into a 59 percent unfavorable to 36 percent favorable.
In the American National Election Studies surveys going back to 1968, respondents were asked to rate their feelings towards each candidate on a scale of zero to 100, with 50 being neither a warm nor cold feeling toward the candidate.
For example, in 1972, Richard Nixon’s average feeling was 66, compared to George McGovern’s 49, to be matched only by Mitt Romney in 2012 with an average feeling thermometer of 47.
The two elections where both candidates were basically tied in their average feelings—1980 and 2000—saw two different elections: 1980 saw Reagan soundly defeat the incumbent president Jimmy Carter, while in 2000, Al Gore held a one-point advantage in the respondents’ feelings, and subsequently won the popular vote while losing the electoral vote.
Over time and with the rise of our current era of polarized partisanship, one can see the differences in feelings between self-identified partisans (including independents who lean to one party) and independents in between over the past nearly fifty years.
In 1968, an election that was among the most bitterly divided in modern American history and that many are trying to compare this year’s election to, the differences between how partisans viewed each party’s presidential candidate was 24 (towards Humphrey) and 21 (towards Nixon). A difference, but nowhere near what 2012 had to offer.
In the most recent presidential election, the self-identified partisan break-outs of the feelings towards Romney and Obama were the most stark since 1968, with a 52-point difference between Democrats and Republicans in feelings toward Obama and a 44-point difference between Democrats and Republicans in feelings toward Romney.
In fact, splitting these partisans into their party "strength" of how they self-identify, the differences between Obama and Romney are considerable. Seventy-one percent of strong Democrats had a fairly cool (or very cool) feeling towards Romney, while 82 percent of strong Republicans had a warm or very warm feeling.
Towards Obama, 97 percent of strong Democrats had a warm or very warm feeling towards their candidate, while 83 percent of strong Republicans were cool or very cool towards the Democratic president.
Notably, Romney garnered a 40 warm/35 cool response from political independents, while Obama garnered a 58 warm/27 cool from those in the middle of the partisan spectrum.
With both of this year's candidates experiencing such high negatives, the reaction by both strong partisans and independents will be interesting to watch as to how they feel towards both candidates. If early polling is any indication, there won’t be much love or warmth toward either candidate. The real test for November may be which candidate has the least 'chill' from the voters.