New Hampshire poll: GOP pack has no breakout candidate

Margaret Talev
Bloomberg News

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush may have money and name recognition, but voter enthusiasm for Senators Rand Paul and Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is fueling a wide-open contest in New Hampshire, nine months before the state's first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

More likely Republican primary voters in a new Bloomberg Politics/Saint Anselm New Hampshire Poll said they had either a “very favorable” or “somewhat favorable” opinion of Paul than any other GOP contender, 62 percent. He's followed by Rubio at 60 percent, Bush at 59 percent, and Walker and Texas Senator Ted Cruz at 54 percent. Rubio's popularity with New Hampshire primary voters represents a surge, up from 52 percent in February, suggesting a good bounce off of his formal entry into the race last month.

Bush has the highest unfavorable rating from likely Republican primary voters among the party's leading contenders, with 35 percent saying they had either “somewhat unfavorable” or “very unfavorable”opinions of him. Paul's unfavorable rating is 27 percent among primary voters, while Rubio's is 18 percent and Walker's is only 14 percent.

Regardless of who wins the primary, the general election may pose problems for Republicans in New Hampshire. No Republican has a higher favorability rating among likely general-election voters than Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who stands at 46 percent.

The poll, conducted May 2-6 by Washington-based Purple Insights, found that the four leading Republican candidates are neck and neck: Paul and Walker each were the first choice of12 percent of likely GOP primary voters, while Bush and Rubio took 11 percent. While Cruz scored a high favorable mark, he was the first choice of just 6 percent of GOP primary voters.

“This is incredibly fluid, and all of these underlying numbers point to that fluidity,” said Purple Insights' Doug Usher.

“It's four people, all at about the same level, with no clear front-runner,” Usher said. “So the next question: Is one of them better liked? And the answer is, there are three of them who are better liked: Paul, Walker, and Rubio,” when their unfavorable ratings and the intensity of voters' favorable feelings toward them are taken into account.

When only the “very favorable” category is measured among likely Republican primary voters, Walker leads with 25 percent, followed by Rubio at 24 percent, Paul at 22 percent, and Bush, Cruz, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carsonat 19 percent. Usher said Bush's perceived fundraising advantage may even out the dynamic to some degree.

“Jeb's got the money, and these folks have popularity. If you're Jeb and you look at these numbers, you're thinking, 'I've got to bolster my strength, and I've got to bring them down a peg.'”

Among likely general-election voters, Paul enjoys the highest favorability rating of the Republican contenders,with 40 percent expressing either “very favorable” or “somewhat favorable” opinions of him. Rubio and Bush follow, at 37 percent. Behind them are former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, at 34 percent; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at 32 percent; Cruz at 31 percent; and Walker at 30 percent.

Many Republicans including Paul and Bush have higher unfavorable ratings than favorables among likely general- election voters.

Bush's unfavorable rating among likely general-election voters53 percent is the highest of the four leading Republicans. Only businessman and TV personality Donald Trump and Christie had worse unfavorables, at 64 percent and 54 percent respectively.

Among independent voters a barometer of general-election dynamics Paul again enjoys an advantage among the four leading Republicans, with a favorable-to-unfavorable ratio of 44 percent to 39 percent. Rubio also is in positive territory, 36 percent to 32 percent. Walker gets a 27 percent favorable rating from independents and a 29 percent unfavorable rating, while Bush's rating is 38 percent favorable to 51 percent unfavorable.

Underscoring the fluidity of the race, the poll found that the Republican presidential hopefuls have yet to distinguish themselves from one another when it comes to specific leadership traits.

Likely Republican primary voters were asked which of five candidates Bush, Cruz, Paul, Rubio, and Walker were best described by the phrase “cares about people like you.” Nearly half of the respondents didn't pick a specific candidate. Among the individual candidates, Walker fared best, at 15 percent.

Similar results for other questions on leadership, honesty, values, and vision suggest that all five have room to grow as the state's voters get to know more about them.

Les McKechnie, 68, of Freedom, N.H., a retired sales engineer and Army colonel who responded to the poll, said Rubio is his leading choice because “he's young; he's got new ideas.” But in a reflection of just how much opinions can change, McKechnie jokingly added: “That was last week.”

“You never know what's going to happen,” he said. “We're so far away from the ultimate determination.”

The poll included 500 general-election voters as well as over samples to have 400 Republican primary voters and 400 Democratic primary voters. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points on general-election questions and plus or minus 4.9 percentage points on primary-election questions. The margin of error in subgroups such as independents voting in the general election may be higher.