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At first glance, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll looks like rough news for Jeb Bush. The data shows that Mitt Romney gets more robust favorable ratings from the public at large -- AND from Republicans, as well as Tea Party supporters -- than the former Florida governor.
But a deeper dive shows that there may be one bright spot for Bush: he’s got room to grow.
Just four percent of those polled said that they don’t know Romney’s name, while 29 percent say they are neutral when it comes to assessing their feelings about the former GOP nominee. But a combined 50 percent of voters say they don’t have strong feelings about Bush; 14 percent don’t know of him, while 36 percent say they are neutral.
Among Republicans, 36 percent say they’re neutral on their feelings about Bush, while 11 percent say they don’t know the name. For Romney, that’s 33 percent neutral among Republicans and just 3 percent unknown.
And in constituencies where Bush might hope to expand beyond Romney’s 2012 base, he remains relatively undefined. He’s unknown to one in five Hispanics, one in four young voters, and 17 percent of independents.
It’s worth noting that Romney’s positive rating overall (27 percent) and with Republicans (52 percent) are significantly higher than Bush’s (19 percent and 37 percent, respectively). But Romney’s negatives are also higher, with 40 percent of all Americans, 36 percent of independents and 35 percent of white working class voters giving him a thumbs down. That’s compared to 32 percent of all Americans, 27 percent of independents and 24 percent of white working class voters giving poor marks to Bush.
And one underlying reason for the negatives already dogging Bush, a former governor who's been out of office and mostly free of the public spotlight since 2007, could be this: many voters are conflating him with his unpopular brother, former President George W. Bush.
Brandon Graham, a participant in a recent Denver-area focus group conducted on behalf of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, put it this way: "Jeb Bush is more of the same. I enjoy gas [prices] being low. I enjoy my house appreciating and I enjoy being in not any more wars."
If Jeb Bush can define himself more distinctly from his younger brother -– and the accompanying bad memories of Iraq and the economic recession – this data shows that he could have a few more rungs on the popularity ladder to climb. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, may be eyeing the ceiling already.