Mark Mellman: So many candidates, so little love

Mark Mellman: So many candidates, so little love
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A seemingly interminable flight, blessed with a well-stocked video-on-demand system, afforded me the opportunity to watch Woody Allen’s classic “Annie Hall” again after a hiatus of many years. 

At one point, the star tells a joke about two elderly women — who, after a Passover with my family, feel awfully familiar — visiting a Catskill resort of a now bygone era. Says the first: “The food at this place is really terrible.” “Yes, I know,” sighs the second in agreement, “and such small portions!”

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Alvy Singer, Allen’s barely disguised character, sees the joke as a metaphor for life: “full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness — and it’s all over much too quickly.”

Being somewhat better adjusted than Singer/Allen but still weird in my own way, my first thought upon hearing the punch line was of the Republican presidential field: so many candidates and none really well liked.

Gallup recently confirmed my sentiment, with a piece noting that that this GOP field stands out for ... well, for not standing out.

As a group, they are less well known than their predecessors. Three-quarters of Republicans are familiar with Jeb Bush, the best known in the field, with Mike Huckabee next at 72 percent and Chris Christie at 71 percent. Two-thirds know Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulOn The Money: House votes to avert shutdown, fund government through November | Judge blocks California law requiring Trump tax returns | Senate panel approves three spending bills Paul objection snags confirmation of former McConnell staffer Defense bill talks set to start amid wall fight MORE, and 57 percent are familiar with Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzState Department's top arms control official leaving Sanders NASA plan is definitely Earth first Trump judicial picks face rare GOP opposition MORE. Just about half know Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Memo: 'Whistleblower' furor gains steam Liberal super PAC launches browser extension replacing 'Mitch McConnell' with 'Moscow Mitch' Trump faces difficult balancing act with reelection campaign MORE and Scott Walker. 

By contrast, John McCainJohn Sidney McCainAmerica's newest comedy troupe: House GOP Michelle Malkin knocks Cokie Roberts shortly after her death: 'One of the first guilty culprits of fake news' Arizona Democratic Party will hold vote to censure Sinema MORE went into 2008 known to 84 percent of Republicans, and Rudy Giuliani to 89 percent. 2004 featured an incumbent Republican president who was known to 91 percent at this point in his initial 2000 quest for the presidency, while opponent Elizabeth Dole was equally famous. Even Steve Forbes was more of a known quantity in 2000 than Rubio, Walker or Cruz is today.

In 1996, more than 80 percent of Republicans were familiar with Bob Dole. 

More important, the current candidates are not as well liked as those who sought the nomination before them. The most popular of the current batch is Huckabee, whose favorables are 40 percentage points higher than his unfavorables. Rubio, Bush, Walker, Paul and Cruz have similar net favorable scores, ranging from +31 to +39. 

Christie is least popular, with only 9 percentage points more of his fellow Republicans holding favorable rather than unfavorable opinions of him.

But even the more popular contenders are pikers compared to GOP candidates in earlier cycles. In 1996, Dole, the eventual nominee, was at +55, while George W. Bush clocked in at an impressive +85 in 2000. Giuliani scored +63, and even the irascible McCain bested the current field with +42. 

Looked at differently, not one of the current GOP field has favorables among Republicans within 6 points of McCain, within 30 points of Bush 43 or within 13 points of Dole. 

By contrast, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonUkrainian official denies Trump pressured president The Memo: 'Whistleblower' furor gains steam Missing piece to the Ukraine puzzle: State Department's overture to Rudy Giuliani MORE is well known and much loved by her partisans. Ninety-seven percent of Democrats are familiar with her, and she sports a whopping +75 net favorability, 35 points higher than the strongest Republican in his party.

As with mutual funds, these current standings are not necessarily indicative of future success, but the putative Republican candidates do face some real hurdles. Not only do they have to beat a large field, they must become far better known and much better liked within their own party before they can begin battling for the affections of swing voters. 

Moreover, several of them need to alter quite negative public perceptions among their own partisans as well as among swing voters — a particularly onerous task.

So many Republican candidates and so few voters who really know and like them — there must be a good joke in that somewhere.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the minority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.