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Parsing the Polls: How Strong Is Gore?

Following his Oscar victory earlier this week, both coasts are abuzz with the prospect of Al Gore declaring himself a presidential candidate.

The Fix has long been a close observer of Gore's movements and parser of his words on this particular topic.

We even argued why he should and shouldn't run.

But amid all the Gore hype, we thought it would be instructive to look at the raw data surrounding Gore -- and there is scads of it -- to see just how big an impact he could have on the race.

The answer? Not as much as you might think.

Let's parse the polls!

When Gore is included in hypothetical Democratic primary match ups, he regularly receives a low double-digit amount of support. That's good enough for third or fourth place behind Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois as well as former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

In a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week, Clinton led the way with 36 percent, while Obama took 24 percent. Gore placed third with 14 percent, slightly ahead of Edwards.

Those results are mirrored in a variety of recent surveys. A Quinnipiac University poll, which was in the field from Feb. 13-19, put Gore at 11 percent and in third place -- 12 points behind Obama and 27 behind Clinton. In a WNBC/Marist poll, Clinton was at 37 percent, Obama 17 percent and Gore 11 percent. A January Cook Political Report survey also pegged Gore at 11 percent and tied for third with Edwards. They were well behind Clinton and Obama. Zogby's January poll showed Gore at 13 percent and again knotted with Edwards in third place.

Somewhat surprisingly, Gore's personal favorability ratings are weak as well. In a USA Today/Gallup poll in the field from Feb. 9-11 and testing 1,006 adults, 52 percent said they felt favorably toward Gore, while 45 percent felt unfavorably. Those ratings are considerably less impressive than when Gore was running for president in 2000. At the start of that year, Gore's favorable/unfavorable score was 56 percent and 38 percent in a Gallup poll. By June 2000, it had dropped slightly to 52/39. But Gore was back to 57/40 by year's end.

In a CBS News poll conducted at the beginning of 2007, just 32 percent had a favorable opinion of Gore while 46 percent were not favorably inclined to him. Nineteen percent were undecided. Those numbers are a slight improvement on Gore's ratings in a May 2006 CBS survey where 28 percent felt favorably toward Gore while 39 percent felt unfavorably.

The Fix spoke with several Democratic pollsters in hopes of understanding what these numbers could mean for a Gore candidacy. The pollsters unanimously agreed that Gore almost would certainly receive a bump of support if he formally entered the race. They said many Democrats right now aren't comfortable voicing their support for a candidate who they don't think will run.

However, remember that Gore carries universal name identification, especially among Democratic primary voters. And it is still only in the low double digits at the moment. Everyone knows him, and just 11 to 14 percent of voters are willing to say they would support him. If Gore announces in the coming months, he immediately would be competitive with Obama for second place. But it is much less likely that he would unseat Clinton's hold on first.

What is Gore's growth potential? While his favorability numbers are better among Democratic primary voters than the electorate at large, the polling suggests he is not as beloved as the recent media blitz would have you believe. And if Gore did become a candidate, his rivals surely would seek to remind voters of the things they didn't like about him when he ran for president in 2000.

None of this means that Gore wouldn't be a formidable candidate. He is the only potential candidate in the field who can clear three major hurdles simultaneously: raise the $50 million to $100 million necessary to compete in the barrage of early voting states, show a clean and long record of opposition to the war in Iraq, and offer a deep resume of experience in handling foreign and domestic challenges.

At the moment, Gore is all potential. It is unclear how the public would react if he became a candidate. How would Gore react? Would he be the wonkish but lovable Al Gore from "An Inconvenient Truth?" Or the didactic, sighing Al Gore from campaign 2000?

Regardless of which Gore would emerge, the raw numbers suggest that this race would be anything but a slam dunk for the former vice president. The idea that a Gore candidacy immediately would turn the 2008 nominating contest into a close two-person fight between Gore and Clinton is not supported in the available data.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 28, 2007; 1:04 PM ET
Categories:  Parsing the Polls  
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