Many headlines over the weekend were dedicated to a CNN/ORC poll showing Donald Trump leading the Republican pack in the race for the GOP presidential nomination and Hillary Clinton maintaining real but shrinking leads against all of the top Republican contenders.
One detail, however, got less attention than it perhaps deserved. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, currently Clinton’s most viable rival for the Democratic nomination, wins in head-to-head competitions against all three Republican frontrunners.
Among all respondents to the poll, Sanders, a self-described socialist who has been running to Clinton’s left, beats former Florida governor Jeb Bush 48 percent to 47. That win is well within the poll’s three percent margin of error, but Sanders crushes billionaire Donald Trump 58 percent to 38 percent and notches a statistically significant win over Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, 48 to 42.
What makes Sanders’ showing particularly impressive is that the same poll shows that more than half of Americans either don’t know who he is or don’t know enough about him to have formed an opinion.
When asked their opinion of Sanders, 23 percent of respondents reported a favorable opinion of him and 22 percent reported an unfavorable opinion. However, 38 percent said they had “never heard” of him and another 13 percent didn’t know enough about him to form an opinion.
Basic math says that this isn’t terribly good news for the GOP. Jeb Bush, for example, has enough name recognition for 76 percent of the populace to have an opinion about him (33 percent favorable and 43 percent unfavorable.) But in a head-to-head race a large percentage of people who don’t even know who Bernie Sanders is prefer him to Bush.
It’s far worse for Trump. The billionaire and former reality TV star has the highest name recognition of anyone in the race other than Clinton, yet he still loses by 20 points to Sanders. The 58 percent of the theoretical Sanders vote is not only more than twice the percentage of people who reported a favorable opinion of the Vermonter, but is more than the total number of people favorably or unfavorably disposed who even know who he is.
Scott Walker also gets beaten by Sanders, but of the top three Republican contenders, he has the best excuse. While 52 percent of the poll’s respondents said they didn’t know who Sanders was, 53 percent didn’t know who Walker was.
However, even accounting for the one percent discrepancy in name recognition, Sanders still does substantially better among people who have no idea who he is than Walker does.
None of this is to suggest that Sanders is likely to be either the Democratic nominee or the next president. As he gains national recognition, Sanders will likely start accumulating detractors opposed to his left-leaning policies and the numbers will tighten up.
However, it goes to the heart of Republican concerns about the party’s “brand.” If a Democrat whom Americans know little or nothing about still outpolls the party’s three top candidates, that’s not good news.
Unsurprisingly, such details did nothing to blunt the celebratory tone of Trump’s comments about the polls when he appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday morning.
Among Republican voters, the poll showed that Trump has gained ground in the past month despite controversial comments about the war record of Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. The poll found that he leads Bush 18 percent to 15 percent, with Walker at 10 percent, the only other member of the 17-person GOP pack to hit double digits.
“I’m not that surprised,” Trump said. “We’re getting the biggest crowds and we’re getting by far the biggest ovations. These are great people and they want to see this country turned around.”
He said that the Republican Party, which he only days before had threatened to abandon in favor of an independent run for the White House, has “been really nice over the past few days.”
He said, “They view me as an outsider, I guess, and now they’re starting to view me as not an outsider because I’m leading in the polls.”
The billionaire real estate mogul added, “There is a movement going on. This is more than me. There’s a movement going on. People are tired of these incompetent politicians in Washington that can’t get anything done.”
Asked about the fact that the poll has him losing to Clinton by 57 percent to 38 percent, Trump brushed the question aside, saying he simply hadn’t focused on the contest against Clinton yet. He wasn’t asked about nor did he mention the fact that the same poll had him losing by a slightly greater margin to a guy most Americans have never heard of.