According to a leading polling company, the presidential candidate with the most star power among ‘very conservative’ Republicans and Republican-leaning independents is a Catholic. This Thursday, he’s expected to participate in a primetime debate to be sponsored by Fox News/Facebook at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.
His name is Marco Rubio and he’s campaigning for a ‘New American Century.’ If you consider yourself ‘very conservative,’ then you already knew that. Probably, you already give him high marks.
Here’s how I know.
Since July 8, Gallup has been tracking public opinion about sixteen Republican presidential hopefuls. During that time, the polling company queried about 1,600 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Sixty-two percent of poll participants self-identified as ‘conservative’ and another fifteen percent described themselves as ‘very conservative.’ Most of the remaining respondents were moderates.
Republican strategists consider it important to track ‘very conservative’ voters, since they constitute a key base of their party. As Gallup’s Frank Newport explains, campaign managers keep a close eye on them because they “are highly motivated and involved in the political process, and therefore are most likely to turn out and vote in the primaries.” As political junkies know, winning primaries is key to winning a party’s nomination.
The ‘very conservative’ voters Gallup queried were asked about each of the sixteen Republican candidates for president. (A seventeenth candidate, former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, entered the presidential race after Gallup had concluded its research.) Poll respondents were asked to assign each candidate a favorability, unfavorability, and familiarity rating.
Here’s how America’s ‘very conservative’ candidate stacked up.
The average favorable rating for the sixteen candidates was 54%. Senator Rubio polled at 74% far above the average. Other conservative favorites included Ted Cruz, who had a favorable rating of 70%, and Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, and Donald Trump who all polled at 68%. Both Scott Walker and Ben Carson fell a little behind at 65% each. Rand Paul (60%), Bobby Jindal (58%), Jeb Bush (57%), and Rick Santorum (55%) were all above average, but trailed behind the leading contenders, while Carly Fiorina (42%), Chris Christie (36%), John Kasich (35%), and Lindsey Graham (28%) were all below the average. The lowest favorable rating of 17% went to George Pataki.
While Rubio enjoys an exceptionally high favorability rating, his unfavorability rating of nine percent is one of the lowest in the field this campaign season. Gallup found that only three other candidates have unfavorable ratings lower than him: Walker (3%), Carson (4%), and Jindal (6%). Only one of them — Jindal — is a Catholic.
If the current RealClearPolitics aggregate of national polling data holds through Tuesday evening, when the top ten candidates will be invited to participate in the primetime debate, Rubio will face off against Walker and Carson, but not Jindal. That means that ‘very conservative’ viewers will be primed to like Rubio more than most of his competition. That puts the Florida senator in an enviable position, indeed.
But, that’s not all. Among ‘very conservative’ poll respondents, Rubio will be one of the most familiar candidates on the stage. His familiarity rating only builds on his favorability and unfavorability ratings, making him one of the most recognizable and likeable candidates running for president.
Some eighty-three percent of ‘very conservative’ poll respondents said they were familiar with Rubio. Eighty-nine percent of those who said they were familiar with him said they had a favorable view of him. Only President Bush’s brother, Jeb Bush, Fox News’ Mike Huckabee, and Donald Trump were more familiar to ‘very conservative’ voters, but all three enjoyed lower favorability ratings than Rubio.
In politics, name recognition is currency.
All said, according to Gallup’s polling data, Rubio enjoys a power ranking of 172 out of 200 (or, roughly eighty-six percent). To date, that ranking is the highest in the field. Only six other candidates come close to it: Ted Cruz (168), Rick Perry (166), Donald Trump (166), Mike Huckabee (165), Scott Walker (164), and Ben Carson (163). If the RealClearPolitics aggregate holds, and it reflects the aggregate Fox News/Facebook will use, everyone but Perry will be invited to take part in the main event.
That means that among the ‘very conservative,’ Rubio will be more recognizable than all but Trump and Huckabee, more people will have a favorable opinion of him than any other candidate, fewer people will have an unfavorable view of him, and he’ll be the candidate on the stage with the most star power. He’ll stand an excellent chance of winning a hearing from the ‘very conservative,’ a key constituency of his party and a ticket to the nomination.
What he does with that hearing will matter.
Certainly, Catholics have reason to be proud that one of their own is doing so well among an important voting demographic. Of course, in order to snag the GOP nomination, Rubio will have to appeal to a much wider base of voters. How he performs in Thursday night’s debate will help determine whether he can pull that off.
For now, perhaps it is enough to recognize that Rubio toes the Catholic line on a number of important issues of the day. He understands the importance of religious liberty, he’s concerned about the threat of ISIS, and he’s committed to defeating its American ally, Planned Parenthood.
However, some of Rubio’s positions put him at odds with Pope Francis and other Catholics. Some consider him weak on climate change, privileging economic considerations over ecological ones. And, others imply his position on Cuba puts him at variance with papal diplomacy.
In a political climate that celebrates gay marriage and passes glibly over the destruction of innocent human life for corporate profit, perhaps those differences and deviations are negligible. Catholics shouldn’t want to make the perfect the enemy of the good, after all.
Nevertheless, many months of campaigning lay ahead. And, all the candidates deserve close scrutiny and a fair hearing. But, going into Thursday night’s primetime debate, Catholics should ask themselves four all-important questions.
1. How does Rubio stack up against his competition? Is he persuasive, articulate, and experienced? Can he appeal to a wide swathe of the American electorate?
2. Can he articulate a workable plan for getting America back on course? Does he have the background and gravitas required to accomplish that plan?
3. Does he evidence an ability to stay on course? Is he committed to his principles? Is he focused under pressure and despite distractions?
4. And, does he have the right priorities in view? Does he understand the serious challenges facing America today? Can he articulate them with persuasiveness?
After Thursday, I think we’ll be able to begin piecing together the answers to those questions.