The big headline from a new poll released by Government Executive and Government Business Council is that Donald Trump leads the Republican field among current federal government employees. However, perhaps just as interesting is the emergence of other outsiders, such as former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and neurosurgeon Ben Carson, whose outside-the-beltway messages have appealed to disenfranchised voters across the country, and some even within the federal government.
When asked who they would vote for if the Republican primary were tomorrow, federal workers who identified as Republicans or as independents who "leaned Republican" gave Trump the nod by a nearly two-to-one margin compared to the next leading candidate, Fiorina. Fiorina’s appearance near the top of the field comes as a surprise to many, given her relegation to last week’s “kid’s table” debate on Fox News. But it was Fiorina’s ability to dominate the less-crowded stage and to connect with Americans critical of the political establishment that has propelled her back into the race. “[T]he potential of this nation and too many Americans is being crushed by the weight, the power, the cost, the complexity, the ineptitude, the corruption of the federal government,” she stated.
Carson – who did appear on Fox News’s main stage last Thursday – appeared calm and collected under some of hosts Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace’s most challenging questions, namely on his relative lack of foreign policy experience and on his attitudes toward the Black Lives Matter movement.
Both Fiorina and Carson continue to trail behind the most outspoken of outsiders, Donald Trump. Yet, despite the real estate mogul and reality television star’s blistering rhetoric and early success, his polarizing image may prove a liability further on down the campaign trail.
In the same Aug. 7 poll, Government Executive asked a sample of 973 federal employees whether their opinions of the current Democratic and Republican candidates were favorable, unfavorable, or that they didn’t know enough to make a decision. The candidates included the ten GOP candidates to take the main stage last Thursday (Fiorina was not included) as well as the current Democratic field with the additions of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vice President Joe Biden (the latter of whom has not announced his candidacy, but is expected to). Forty-four percent of those surveyed self-identified as Democrats or independents who leaned Democratic, 40 percent as Republicans or who leaned Republican, and 16 percent as undecided.
Among government employees who identify as Democrats, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Biden received the highest favorability ratings, with 78 percent and 66 percent, respectively. Among self-identified Republicans, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Carson tied atop the list, each with 65 percent. Trump, despite his strong showing in head-to-head polling, ranked near the middle of the pack with 47 percent, below former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and roughly even with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
At this stage in the campaign, with election day 2016 more than fourteen months away, voters’ familiarity with a candidate can be just as important as favorability, with candidates of both parties jockeying for name recognition going into the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries. Political science research suggests that once a person makes a political judgment about a candidate, it can be exceedingly difficult for that candidate to change that voter’s mind. For that reason, reaching new potential voters, or those undecided, can help a lesser-known politician make up for lost ground on an incumbent. Candidates who already possess a high degree of name recognition have comparably less room to win over voters and grow in the polls.
When looking at favorability and familiarity together, the advantage tilts away from Trump and toward relative outsiders like Carson, Rubio, and potentially Fiorina (though not included in the poll), who fared better in last week’s debates. Trump’s 47 percent favorability rating among Republicans, despite his 93 percent familiarity rating, does not bode well for his campaign. It implies that Trump may have reached his “ceiling” in terms of popular support and, presumably, has nowhere to go but down. The message is even starker for candidates New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who scored above average in terms of familiarity and well below average in terms of favorability.
In contrast, Rubio and Carson enjoy both above average favorability and below average familiarity among Republican feds. Although they currently trail Trump in a winner-take-all contest, both could stand to make up ground against Trump as their messages reach new voters. The same goes for Fiorina, whose name recognition and likeability surged following her performance in the last debate.
A common technique used to estimate the combined effects of familiarity and favorability involves, first, finding out a candidate’s favorability among those already familiar with him or her and then adding that to that candidate’s familiarity score. The combined index can be used to measure a candidate’s “brand power,” says Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport, a key indicator as to a candidate's ability "to generate positive impressions among those who know them well enough to have an opinion.”
According to such a metric, it’s Carson – not Trump – whose brand has received the greatest bump among government employees. Despite virtually universal name recognition, Trump places fourth among Republicans, below Carson as well as Rubio and Huckabee. However, all GOP candidates trail Democrats Clinton and Biden within their own parties.
Although the federal workforce should not be considered, strictly speaking, representative of the American electorate, polls like these can give readers a window into the minds of a subset of Americans with a great deal at stake in the next election. Stay tuned for GBC’s ongoing coverage of federal perspectives on the 2016 election.