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Bush v. Cruz in 2016: Why Jeb's lead may be real and Ted's rise, just a bump

It's worth noting that Bush’s numbers are higher in this poll than they have been in any polling since the beginning of the year. The fact that he's now hitting numbers above 20% tends to cast doubts on the claim that Bush is 'too moderate' for the GOP base.

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    Tonia McBride (l.) of Waterloo Iowa, shakes hands with Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas during campaign event at the Park Place Event Center, on Thursday in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
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The latest national poll of announced and expected Republican presidential candidates shows that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has unexpectedly surged ahead in the wake of his announcement, but former Florida Governor Jeb Bush remains in a firm lead:

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush now leads the field of Republican candidates for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination, but former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton enjoys a decided advantage over Bush and other potential GOP rivals in hypothetical general election matchups, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

At this early stage in the 2016 competition, the prospective candidates suffer from image weaknesses, but the Republicans have a more acute problem. Most Republicans are not well known, but at this point, not a single one of six Republicans included in the survey has a favorability rating that is net positive.

Bush – by far the best known among those running for the GOP nomination – is viewed favorably by just 33 percent of the public, while 53 percent say they view him unfavorably. Only Clinton among all those included in the poll has a net positive rating, but by the slender margin of three percentage points (49-46 percent). Her favorability rating has dropped nine points in the past year and 18 points since she left the State Department in 2013.

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In the contest for the Republican nomination, Bush tops the field with 20 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents saying they would support him if their primary or caucus were held today. He is followed by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at 13 percent and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at 12 percent. Five other Republicans receive at least 6 percent support, with an additional six candidates at either 2 or 1 percent. Bush, Cruz and Walker are the only three to register noticeable gains since the last Post-ABC survey on the GOP race in December.

Bush, who faces potential resistance from some Republicans for his stands on immigration and Common Core school standards, enjoys his strongest support among moderate and liberal Republicans and among those who say they are “somewhat conservative.”

Bush has been on an aggressive pace to stockpile funds for his candidacy and appears to have benefited from decisions by 2012 nominee Mitt Romney and 2012 vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) to stay out of the race. His 20 percent support level, hardly an indication of dominance, underscores potential challenges ahead. However, one in three Republicans say they think Bush will be their party’s nominee.

The survey was taken in the days after Cruz became the first Republican to formally announce for president. The former Texas solicitor general, running unabashedly as the true conservative in the race, enjoys his greatest support among the most conservative Republicans. Walker, who began rising after a well-received speech in Iowa in January, enjoys about equal support among those who say they are somewhat conservative and those who say they are very conservative.

Bush’s and Cruz’s support are mostly evenly distributed among demographic groups. Walker runs far better among men than women and far better among Republicans with college degrees than those without, although he did not graduate from college. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who hopes to redraw the GOP coalition, runs three times better among those younger than 50 than those who are older.

Nearly all the Republican candidates are viewed favorably within their own party. Bush, Walker, Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who will formally launch his campaign April 13, are viewed positively by margins of about 26 points among self-identified Republicans. Paul, who will announce Tuesday, has a 13-point positive-to-negative rating in his party.

Meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, once regarded as a top-tier prospect for the nomination, has a major image problem within his party as well as with the public at large. He is viewed favorably by 38 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents and unfavorably by 41 percent. Among all Americans, 51 percent have an unfavorable impression of Christie, topped only by Bush’s 53 percent.

As is always the case with early polling like this, these numbers should be viewed at least somewhat skeptically both because were are still some 10 months away from the first primaries of the 2016 season and because, as with all polling, these are merely snapshots in time of the current state of the race. Notwithstanding that, though, there are a few interesting things that we can take away from this poll and what it tells us about how the race stands at this early point in time. For one thing, it’s worth noting that Bush’s numbers are higher in this poll than they have been in any polling since the beginning of the year at the earliest. Generally, though he has led the field at least somewhat, Bush’s numbers have stayed between 16 percent and 18 percent. The fact that he's now hitting numbers above 20% tends to cast doubts on the arguments that have been made by some pundits, and by many conservatives inside the Republican Party, that Bush was somehow "too moderate" for the GOP or that his position on issues such as immigration reform and Common Core education standards were unacceptable to the base. Obviously, the real test of that hypothesis will be once the campaign begins in earnest this summer and in the wake of the debates that start in the fall. For the moment at least, though, there really doesn’t seem to be much evidence for the idea that Jeb Bush is per se unacceptable to Republican primary voters any more than Mitt Romney was.

One part of the poll that is receiving a lot of attention, of course, is what impact Ted Cruz’s announcement has had on his poll numbers. So far, at least it seems to be having a minor impact at most. Cruz comes in at 12 percent in this poll, which isn’t very much higher than the 8 percent he hit in the ABC/Washington Post poll conducted in January and is somewhat less than the 16 percent that Cruz got in the Public Policy Polling poll that was released last week. Presently, that puts his RealClearPolitics average at 8.6 percent, placing him just outside the “top tier” candidates in double digits, Bush, Scott Walker, and Rand Paul. This is obviously better than the 4.7 percent that Cruz was at in the average when he announced his candidacy, but as Jonathan Bernstein argues, we really ought to ignore this surge:

Recommended: 14 Republicans running in 2016

This week, Cruz is rising rapidly in the Republican test ballots. The Washington Post has him second to Bush. PPP also has him in second place, but trailing Walker.

That tells you exactly one thing: Cruz received a burst of publicity by being the first to formally announce his candidacy. At this point, with more than a dozen candidates and almost a year to go before even the first primary vote, just getting air time, especially in the partisan media, is enough to get a bump.

Someone else will get some publicity, and another polling surge will commence. It won’t have any predictive value, either.

Most Republican voters are inclined to basically like all of the party’s candidates; almost anyone interested enough to vote in primary elections would vote for any of them in a general election, even the most obscure ones. And there’s very little to differentiate the candidates – and most of them will be long gone before most Republicans get a chance to vote.

At this point, polls basically reflect name recognition and recall, and candidates who have been in the news do better.

Bernstein is exactly right. Cruz is getting a bump in the polls largely because of his announcement. The same thing will happen when Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, and whoever else ends up running gets into the race over the next several months. The question will be whether these candidates are able to maintain that level of support after the post-announcement “bump” has faded and how the overall race will be impacted once the campaign begins in earnest and candidates hit the road in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, and elsewhere. Those are are questions that we won’t be able to answer for several more months at least.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

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