Can the nice guy finish first?
That’s the question a lot of analysts are asking about the Republican race for president, with headlines such as “Tim Scott is turning heads with donors and early-state voters” and “Tim Scott’s formidable charm meets a tough Republican electorate.”
While the South Carolina senator remains well behind front-runner Donald Trump in the national horserace polls, a number of key indicators – from favorability ratings to early-state polling to fundraising – suggest Scott may be the GOP candidate to watch besides the former president or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Right now, most of the Republican hopefuls are not well known. Many voters will start paying attention as the debates begin and the primaries draw closer.
To see how these voters may react down the line, it can be helpful to see what’s going on among those who are already watching the race closely. Voters in this group seem to like what they’re seeing and hearing from Scott.
Take a look at the most recent Quinnipiac University poll that asked about all the GOP candidates’ favorable ratings. Among Republicans who had formed an opinion of DeSantis, Scott and Trump, Scott was the most popular. His favorability rating of 89% beat Trump’s 82% and DeSantis’ 81%.
A high favorability rating is far from a guarantee that a candidate will do well. After all, DeSantis and Trump have similar ratings on this score, and Trump is crushing the Florida governor in the polls.
But a high favorable rating often earns a candidate a closer inspection by voters. That happened to DeSantis earlier this year, helping him to climb in the polls. He has since fallen considerably behind Trump in national surveys, showing that such an examination doesn’t always work out in a candidate’s favor.
Scott, however, seems to be picking up some steam in the states that matter most at this point in the race: Iowa and New Hampshire. A candidate who is going to break through against Trump and DeSantis would need to do so in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.
The polling from Iowa has been limited (and none of it meets CNN’s standards for publication), but an interesting nugget has emerged from the data that have been released to the public. All of it, including surveys sponsored by groups sympathetic to DeSantis’ and Trump’s campaigns, has Scott in third place.
Likewise, the polling from New Hampshire has been looking up for Scott. A University of New Hampshire poll conducted this month had the senator in third place at 8% in the state’s GOP primary. Scott also had the best net favorability rating of any Republican candidate in the survey, regardless of name recognition. This is another indicator that the more voters get to know him, the more they’ll like him.
Of course, Scott is still not particularly well known. Nearly half (47%) of Republicans nationally haven’t heard enough about him to form an opinion, according to Quinnipiac, compared with 2% for Trump and 11% for DeSantis.
Scott has two things on his side that will allow him to gain recognition as the race progresses.
First, his campaign has a lot of money. Scott’s apparatus had $21 million in cash on hand as of June 30 – second only to Trump in the Republican primary. DeSantis was in third place with $12 million on hand.
Many campaigns don’t even make it to the primaries because they run out of money. Scott’s campaign, at this point, does not seem in danger of that. The money his campaign does have can be spent on organization and advertisements.
A super PAC supporting Scott likewise will get his name out to voters. It has reserved $40 million in ad time at the beginning of the fall across the early nominating states (Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina).
Second, voters want to hear more from and about Scott. All the money in the world can’t help a campaign if voters aren’t receptive to the message. (See: Jeb Bush in 2016.)
Our CNN/SSRS poll from May revealed that Scott was the candidate GOP voters most wanted to hear more about. A plurality (29%) of Republicans who weren’t selecting Scott in the presidential race said so.
The big question going forward is what happens when Scott gets challenged directly by the other candidates. At the moment, the press coverage and most attacks are focused on Trump and DeSantis. It’s easy to be seen as a nice guy when the spotlight isn’t that bright.
That spotlight will become brighter if Scott’s numbers begin to move up considerably.
But if he can handle the big stage, then watch out. Scott could surprise a lot of people in the presidential race.