Data Driven Analysis of the Republican Field of Presidential Candidates for 2016

Minitab Blog Editor 16 April, 2015

American flagThe 2016 presidential race is becoming more real. We’ve had several announcements with Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Hillary Clinton, and Marco Rubio officially entering the race to be President. While the prospective Democratic candidates are down to one, or at most a few, the Republican field is extra-large this election cycle. The first order of business for a GOP candidate is to survive the nomination process in order to become the nominee for the Republican Party. In this post, I assess the strengths and weaknesses of 15 potential and actual Republican presidential candidates.

The analysis I’ll use is the Solution Desirability Matrix in Companion by Minitab. In a quality improvement project, you might use this tool to see how well several different solutions align with your organization’s various requirements. Here, I’ll use it to assess the qualities of the potential candidates for the GOP presidential nominee. 

The model and values I present were developed by my good friend Chris Jordan and me. Presidential politics is a spectator sport for us! We’ve even developed our own fantasy politics game and held a draft from both political parties back in February.

After the draft, we naturally started to second-guess our choices and wanted to determine how well we had drafted. We decided to rigorously and objectively assess the Republican candidates to answer our questions.

I previously used the Solution Desirability Matrix to see who Mitt Romney might choose for Vice President in 2012. In fact, at the time, Chris and I had a bet about Romney’s choice. I credit winning that bet to the Solution Desirability Matrix!

The Solution Desirability Matrix is a multi-dimensional decision matrix that helps make subjective decisions more objective. This matrix provides a semi-scientific method for selecting which of several competing designs or strategies best matches a list of requirements. The proposals are scored on how well each improvement proposal matches the selection criteria.

8 Criteria to Evaluate the Presidential Candidates

Chris and I pooled our thoughts and collected data to thoroughly assess the candidates using a broad set of measures with the best information available at this time. Our goal was to assess the strengths of each candidate and rank them in terms of predicted performance during the Republican nomination process.

We identified eight criteria that measure very different characteristics. While any individual criterion is not very predictive at this early date, a candidate who ranks highly on a number of criteria shows a broader foundation for ongoing success.

Below are the criteria we identified and how we scored the candidates. The scores range from 1 to 9, where higher scores are better. All scores are based on data obtained before any official announcements in order to avoid the inevitable but temporary bounce in the polls. We didn’t want to rate the candidates based on a short-term bounce. 

Net positive * Name recognition: Harry Enten of 538 found a positive correlation between favorability ratings and name recognition. In other words, high name recognition is associated with higher favorability ratings. However, if a specific candidate doesn’t follow this pattern (widely known but is not liked as much as predicted), it’s an obstacle. Using this measure, Mike Huckabee is the highest-rated candidate because he is both well known from his previous presidential bids and as a TV commentator, and he has very good favorability ratings. Chris Christie ranks the lowest because he is well-known but has very low favorability ratings.

Activity in Early Primary/Caucus states: The states that traditionally have early primaries and caucuses are very important in the nomination process. The typical pattern for an election with no Republican incumbent is that one candidate wins Iowa and another candidate wins New Hampshire. South Carolina breaks the tie and determines who becomes the nominee. History shows that candidates who don’t have wins in these three states don’t win the nomination even if they have otherwise promising starts. Just ask Jon Huntsman, Rudy Giuliani and Michelle Bachmann.

Campaign activity in these early states is important for a variety of reasons. This activity shows that a candidate is taking the race seriously and can indicate intent to run even before the official announcement. It also shows that a candidate has a proven ability to put together an effective ground game and engage in the more personal style of retail politics. This style requires different strengths than the mass-marketing techniques of wholesale politics.

Rick Perry, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz have all had a large number of campaign events in these states, while Jeb Bush and Chris Christie have had very few.

Polling Data: We include polling data from Real Clear Politics for both the early states and nationally. We include a separate polling measure for the early states because, as discussed above, they are crucial.

A strong candidate will do well in both the early states and nationally. However, it’s possible that a candidate could do well in one arena but not another, or neither. Having both variables helps delineate the breadth of their current support. Jeb Bush and Scott Walker do well both in the polls of early states as well nationally. Ben Carson does well nationally but not in the early states. Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal don’t do well in either measure.

Fundraising: Raising money is critically important in modern elections. Consequently, we’ve given fundraising double the weight in our analysis. Jeb Bush is the undisputed winner of this category. His gains, in large part, have come at Chris Christie’s expense by successfully raiding Christie’s backyard, i.e., the rich donors in the New York City area.

Leadership Experience: A recent Pew Research Poll shows that the type and amount of leadership experience that a presidential candidate has is particularly important to voters during this election cycle. According to the poll, the most valued types of leadership are in the military, as Governor, or a business executive. Experience in Washington, D.C., say as a Senator, is much further down the list—but it is better than no leadership experience.

With this poll in mind, we gave high scores to the candidates who have been Governors or business executives (Carly Fiorina). Senators got a middling score while Dr. Ben Carson received the lowest score.

Ideological Fit: This measure assesses how conservative each candidate is compared to recent GOP presidential nominees. Nate Silver of 538 assessed the conservativeness of the GOP presidential candidates using their fundraising sources, voting records, and public statements. Silver found that recent Republican nominees have fallen within a specific range of conservatism. Candidates who are outside this range have not been able to secure the Republican nomination in recent history.

In our analysis, candidates in the correct range get a high score. Jeb Bush gets the highest score because he is the closest to the optimal amount. Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, and Lindsey Graham also get high scores for being close. When a candidate is further away from this optimal zone, in either the liberal or conservative direction, their score drops. For example, Chris Christie gets a low score because he is the most liberal, while Rand Paul gets a low score because he is the most conservative.

General Election Match-Up: This measure shows how well each Republican candidate fares against Hillary Clinton in a hypothetical general election. We include this measure to capture an electability aspect. It’s not uncommon for voters to prefer one candidate for ideological reasons but support another candidate who is perceived to have a greater chance of winning the election.

According to Real Clear Politics, all GOP candidates lose to Clinton in these polls. We gave three scores to represent three groups of candidates. The differences within each group are too small to be meaningful. One group loses to Clinton by a smaller percentage than the other group, and we gave them the higher score. There is no election match-up poll data available on Real Clear Politics for candidates in the third group. We gave this group the lowest score of 1 because we felt the lack of data is indicative of ineffectively registering in public opinion.

Analysis Results of the Republican Candidates

The results show clearly that a candidate must have a broad collection of strengths to be able standout from the pack. Candidates with only a couple of strengths quickly get lost in the crowd.

We think this is a fairly robust model. As we refined the model by adding variables and finding better data, the overall ranks of the candidates eventually stabilized and stopped changing.

The candidates are sorted from better to worse scores. Be sure to check out the discussion below the results.

Solution desirability matrix of Republican presidential candidates

Discussion of the Candidate Rankings

The Top Tier: Jeb Bush and Scott Walker

Jeb BushJeb Bush and Scott Walker are both Republican Party establishment candidates. Historically, establishment candidates have tended to win the GOP presidential nomination.

Jeb Bush emerges as the frontrunner in our analysis, which matches the general consensus. He has the largest number of perfect scores of 9 in our analysis, which reflects a multitude of strengths. Indeed, one of his few “weaknesses” is that he has rarely appeared in the early states. However, instead of campaigning in these states, he’s been busy raising a vast amount of money and locking in the support of party leaders. This strategy is undoubtedly a smart trade-off because he still polls well in the early states. The former Governor of Florida has a respectable favorability rating but it’s not as high as you’d expect given his high name recognition. Presumably, this is baggage due to his last name, which could be a limiting factor.

Scott WalkerScott Walker is the current Governor of Wisconsin and there’s not a lot of daylight between him and Bush. The biggest difference between these two is their ideological fit scores. Walker is very conservative compared to Bush, who is at the optimal value for securing the nomination. On the positive side, Walker has substantially lower name recognition than Bush. It’s possible that Walker's favorability rating can increase as he becomes more widely known. This area of potential growth is not available to Bush and could tip the balance in Walker’s favor. However, it remains to be seen whether he can capitalize on this opportunity.

The Second Tier: Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul

Mike HuckabeeMike Huckabee and Rand Paul are tied for third in our analysis. Our assessment is that while they clearly have several key strengths they also face serious obstacles. Even if neither wins the nomination, they have a good shot at influencing the conversation during the process.

Mike Huckabee was the runner-up to John McCain in the nomination of 2008. His key strengths are that he is the former Governor of Arkansas and that he is both well-known and well-liked. Huckabee enjoys the top favorability scores in our analysis, but this also doesn’t allow him any room for future growth in this area—he’s a known entity. In 2008, his support was mainly limited to the South. If he can’t expand that base of support it will be difficult for him to secure the nomination.

Rand Paul is a very new Senator from Kentucky who, as a Tea Party candidate, won a surprise victory over the favored establishment candidate. In our analysis, Paul fares best in the general election match-up polls, Rand Paulhe’s been very active in the early states, and he has very good favorable ratings. However, he does not have much political experience and he is the most conservative major candidate. Paul’s big problem is that he built his political base on positions very far to the right. In order to expand his base enough to win the nomination, he’ll need to move to the center on a variety of positions without losing his original base. That’s a tall order.

Quick Takes on Other Republican Candidates

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida ranks #5 in our analysis. While he is very young, he's a rising star in the Republican Party due to his natural charisma. Rubio does well in the general election match-up and has a Marco Rubiogood net favorability score, but everything else is middling to low, particularly in the crucial early states. His challenge is two-fold. On the one hand, Rubio is fairly conservative and won't be able to run with the establishment support that more moderate Jeb Bush receives. On the other hand, Rubio is well behind in the polls compared to not one but three other candidates (Walker, Huckabee, and Paul) who are also running to Bush's right. Walker, in particular, is only slightly older than Rubio, has a similar conservativeness rating, and has much more experience. Even if this isn't Rubio's year, he seems to have great potential down the road.

Chris Christie,the current Governor of New Jersey and the former establishment favorite, comes in at #10. After several controversies and being seen increasingly as too liberal to be the Republican nominee (those photo ops with President Obama after hurricane Sandy didn’t help), he’s lost that establishment support to Bush. He also hasn't shown up in the early states and lost many anticipated donors to Bush. Perhaps his Chris Christiebiggest problem is his terrible favorability by name recognition score. Christie is well-known but disliked. Like Huckabee, Christie is a known entity, but in a bad way. This makes everything more difficult for Chris Christie and many are wondering whether he even has a plan.

We’re still at a very early point in the Republican nomination process. There are always surprises in any political contest, but we think this model reflects the state of the race as it is today. As the situation changes, we’ll revisit and adjust the model as necessary.

The photos of Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee are by Gage Skidmore and used under this Creative Commons license.