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First Read: 'We Don't Like Our Candidates Very Much'

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
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First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

Voters in the NBC/WSJ poll: “We don’t like our candidates very much”

Beyond the horserace numbers, the approval ratings, and opinions about tomorrow’s Benghazi committee testimony, maybe the biggest finding in our new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll is how the American electorate -- at large -- doesn’t care for the 2016 field. Every major candidate in the poll, including non-candidate Joe Biden (at least for now), gets a majority of voters saying they are uncertain/pessimistic about their ability to do a good job as president vs. optimistic/satisfied. According to our pollsters, there is no precedent for that level of negativity for the ENTIRE FIELD in the history of the NBC/WSJ poll on this question. “We don’t like our candidates very much,” co-pollster Bill McInturff (R) said in summing up the finding here. “There is no single candidate who got a net-positive rating [on this question]. There is simply no precedent for that.” The numbers:

  • Biden: 46% optimistic/satisfied, 52% uncertain/pessimistic (-6)
  • Sanders: 43% optimistic/satisfied, 50% uncertain/pessimistic (-7)
  • Carson: 42% optimistic/satisfied, 50% uncertain/pessimistic (-8)
  • Clinton: 43% optimistic/satisfied, 56% uncertain/pessimistic (-13)
  • Rubio: 39% optimistic/satisfied, 52% uncertain/pessimistic (-13)
  • Fiorina: 31% optimistic/satisfied, 55% uncertain/pessimistic (-24)
  • Bush: 36% optimistic/satisfied, 62% uncertain/pessimistic (-26)
  • Cruz: 29% optimistic/satisfied, 61% uncertain/pessimistic (-32)
  • Trump: 32% optimistic/satisfied, 67% uncertain/pessimistic (-35)

Comparing with past winners and losers

By contrast, here are some of the numbers from past elections (asked of likely voters in October of an election year):

  • Bill Clinton (1996): 59% optimistic/satisfied, 40% uncertain/pessimistic (+19)
  • George W. Bush (2000): 56% optimistic/satisfied, 43% uncertain/pessimistic (+13)
  • Barack Obama (2008): 56% optimistic/satisfied, 43% uncertain/pessimistic (+13)
  • Al Gore (2000): 52% optimistic/satisfied, 47% uncertain/pessimistic (+5)
  • George W. Bush (2004): 51% optimistic/satisfied, 48% uncertain/pessimistic (+3)
  • John Kerry (2004): 48% optimistic/satisfied, 51% uncertain/pessimistic (-3)

Take a look at the fav/unfav scores

The current level of negativity about the entire 2016 field also is reflected in the fav/unfav scores (read: popularity ratings) for the candidates, although some of them have net-positive scores:

  • Carson: 38%-24% (+14)
  • Biden: 42%-31% (+11)
  • Sanders: 38%-27% (+11)
  • Rubio: 31%-25% (+6)
  • Fiorina: 26%-22% (+4)
  • Clinton: 39%-48% (-9)
  • Cruz: 21%-34% (-13)
  • Bush: 24%-40% (-16)
  • Trump: 30%-53% (-23)

Explaining why Trump and Carson are resonating with GOP voters

So why are Trump and Carson getting stronger in the horserace polls, including ours and today’s Washington Post/ABC? Well, one of us attended a focus group of GOP voters last night in Indianapolis, IN that offered some clues. One big takeaway: The participants' deep disappointment with Republicans leaders in Washington is certainly driving their admiration for outsiders like Trump, Carson and Fiorina.

But when it comes to Trump, the schtick may just be starting to wear a little thin. While many called him "strong" and "direct," 10 of the 12 participants said that they thought Trump would divide the country, and a majority said a Trump presidency could hurt respect for America around the world. "I like what he says, but not how he says it" was a common refrain. Asked to compare the GOP candidates to fictional characters, Trump's matches were hardly presidential: top contenders were Dennis the Menace, the Tasmanian Devil and the Incredible Hulk.

The beneficiary of skepticism about Trump seemed to be Carson, who won descriptions like "wise," "intelligent" "moral" and "a role model." (His cartoon character? Professor Charles Xavier from the X-Men franchise!) About half the group predicted he'd win in November. Said pollster Peter Hart (D), who conducted to focus group on behalf of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania: "Ben Carson becomes a reassuring, soothing voice. Donald Trump becomes the dissident, concerning voice. They love [Trump's] strength; they hate the risk. They are drawn to the flame, but as they get close to it, they shy away because they recognize that, as president, he’s going to create more problems than he’s going to solve.”

Paul Ryan: It’s my way or the highway

Turning away from the 2016 race to last night’s big story on Capitol Hill, Paul Ryan said that he would run for House speaker, “but only if his Republican colleagues meet several conditions,” NBC reported last night. Those conditions included: 1) changing the process in vacating the speaker’s chair (to prevent what happened to John Boehner); 2) spending less time on the road fundraising (so Ryan can be with his young family) in exchange for more time communicating in DC ; and 3) demanding unity from the GOP conference, including the very conservative House Freedom Caucus.

What Ryan essentially told his GOP colleagues: If you do it my way, I’ll be speaker. If not, you better start looking for someone else -- and fast. But the House Freedom Caucus members didn’t seem to be buying Ryan’s demands. “Never thought Paul Ryan would come in and say, ‘I want more power than John Boehner has,” Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) said, per Roll Call. More: “Raúl R. Labrador, another one of the founding members of the HFC who met with Ryan Tuesday, called changes to the motion to vacate the chair a ‘non-starter.’” The danger for the GOP conference, as well as the House Freedom Caucus, is that there doesn’t appear to be an alternative. Then again, lacking an alternative never stopped the GOP opposition to the health-care law or Iran deal.

If Ryan doesn’t run, it could start an all-out civil war inside the House GOP conference

Yet maybe the biggest danger of Ryan walking away is that it could start an all-out civil war inside the House GOP, with moderate/establishment members bolting (and maybe even deciding not to run re-election) because the House is so ungovernable. If you thought Kevin McCarthy pulling out of the speaker’s race was chaotic, just wait to see what happens if Paul Ryan walks away from the speakership.

What changed for Biden yesterday

He started sounding like a candidate. What didn’t change: He still has no money, no staff, and no headquarters: Meanwhile, the waiting game continues for Joe Biden. But something did change yesterday: For the first time, Biden SOUNDED like a candidate, whether it was his apparent dig at Hillary’s Republican “enemies” line, or revising his account of the Osama bin Laden raid. In the past, the words coming from Biden’s mouth had been comments about his heart not being 100% in it. So yesterday was a change.

But here is what HASN’T CHANGED: Biden still has no campaign funds, no hired staff, no campaign headquarters -- all with filing deadlines coming up. NBC’s Kristen Welker reports one additional wrinkle: Biden’s indecision has put the Obama White House in an increasingly awkward position -- as we saw in yesterday’s press briefing, when Press Secretary Josh Earnest was asked a number of questions about the Bin Laden raid and the vice president’s role in it.

Webb’s sour-grapes move

A final word on Jim Webb dropping out of the Democratic presidential race and potentially leaving the door open to an independent bid: Had he done this from the get-go, Webb would have a rationale of being an independent voice. But after failing to raise money, failing to get traction in the polls, and failing to have a breakout performance in the first debate, Webb’s move looks more like sour grapes than anything.