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Kerry’s 2004 ANES Thermometer Ratings: The Least-Liked Democratic Candidate Since McGovern?

By David Gopoian

The feeling thermometer is a measuring instrument that asks respondents to assign a rating of between 0 degrees and 100 degrees to political objects (candidates, other political figures, groups, and institutions). A mean thermometer score of 50 would suggest a neutral evaluation, above 50 favorable, and below 50 unfavorable. Since 1968, the University of Michigan's American National Election Study (ANES) has included feeling thermometers for major party presidential candidates.

The highest overall mean thermometer recorded for a major party presidential candidate, among those who voted for president was for Nixon (mean scores of 67 in both 1968 and 1972). The highest mean Democratic thermometer recorded was for Humphrey in 1968 and Carter in 1976 (62).

The lowest overall mean thermometer score recorded for a major party presidential candidate was 48, for McGovern in 1972. The least-liked Republican nominee was George H.W. Bush in 1992, with a mean score of 52.

The grand mean for all Republican candidates between 1968 through 2000 was 60. The grand mean for all Democratic candidates between 1968 through 2000 was 56. To place what follows in context, both Gore and Bush in 2000 received mean scores of 57.

In the 2004 election, the mean thermometer for Bush was 56. For Kerry it was 52. The absolute difference between Bush’s score and Kerry’s score is not remarkable. In six of the prior nine elections, the gap between the two contenders has been 4 points or greater.

What does make Kerry’s score noteworthy is that his was the lowest mean thermometer recorded for a Democratic nominee since McGovern. His score represents a drop of 5 percentage points from Gore’s mean score four years earlier. The simple interpretation here is straightforward and probably coincides with many preconceptions – John Kerry was the least liked Democratic candidate of the past 30 years.

From that simple interpretation, we may move toward a more careful and truthful assessment. A very unusual pattern characterizes the thermometer scores of both Kerry and Bush in 2004. That pattern reflects intensified partisanship. From 1968 through 2000, party identifiers (including Independents who lean toward one party) generally registered lukewarm feelings toward the candidate of the rival party and substantially warmer feelings toward their own party’s nominees. Democrats, between 1968 through 2000, on average, gave their own nominees a score of 73 and the Republican nominee a score of 46. Republicans in that same time frame gave average scores of 70 for their own nominees and 46 for the Democratic candidates.

Three of those four general trends were ruptured in 2004. Only Kerry’s rating from Democrats followed expectations. Kerry’s mean rating from Democratic identifiers was 72 – close to the grand mean for the prior nine elections. Kerry did about as well as Clinton in 1992 among Democrats and approximated the typical score a Democratic candidate gets from his own followers. Nothing else about the 2004 candidate thermometers followed precedent.

For starters, Republicans gave Kerry a mean score of 32 – six points worse than the score of 38 McGovern received from GOP identifiers in 1972 – and 14 points worse than the score Gore received from Republicans four years earlier. This is the first example of intensified partisanship, and it provides a more nuanced understanding of Kerry’s overall thermometer score – Kerry was the least liked Democrat ever, in the brief history of presidential thermometers, among Republican identifiers. There are some future precincts in New Hampshire and Iowa where that might qualify as a badge of honor.

But if Kerry was the least liked Democrat among rival party followers, George W Bush did him one better in 2004. Bush emerged as the least liked opposition-party presidential candidate, ever, of either major party. Democratic identifiers bestowed upon Bush a mean score of 29 – - a full 12 points lower than the score Democrats gave him four years earlier.

The larger story here is that in 2004, Democratic and Republican identifiers appeared more dramatically polarized than at any time in the past 36 years. The normal respect reserved for American leaders of the opposition party seems to have eroded nearly completely among followers of both major parties. What distinguishes this particular circumstance is its partisan symmetry. Hostility toward the leader of the opposition party is mutually shared by Democrats and Republicans alike. The implications are also magnified by the nearly identical sizes of these blocs of partisan voters (48% Democratic, 47% Republican).

The final bit of data that goes some distance toward explaining Bush’s relative advantage over Kerry in terms is also unprecedented. Of all the candidates who secured their parties’ nominations since 1968, George W Bush was the candidate most revered by his own party. His mean score of 84 surpassed even Reagan’s 1984 thermometer of 78 among Republican identifiers. And in so doing, Bush also bested the previous high rating for candidates from their partisan followers, Bill Clinton’s mark of 80 from Democrats in 1996. In 2004, Kerry attained ratings from Democrats that were typical. Bush generated ratings from Republicans that set records.