Republican Debate Preview: Carson Still Leads in Favorability, Trump Is Picking Up Haters

Donald Trump speaks as Ben Carson looks on during the CNBC GOP debate in Boulder, Colorado, on October 28. Carson and Trump, the leaders in early polling, both have high favorability ratings among Republicans. Rick Wilking/REUTERS

After the September 16 Republican debate, Donald Trump's poll numbers started to slump for the first time in his presidential campaign. Once a lock to be in the high 20s, Trump now registers around or below 25 percent in most national polls. The real estate mogul and self-publicity genius hasn't fallen out of the race, but declining favorability numbers suggest he is becoming more polarizing among the general electorate.

According to the latest ABC/Washington Post polls, Trump is nearly tied with Ben Carson in terms of gross favorability within the party—71 percent of Republicans view Carson favorably, with 69 percent for Trump. That outstrips their "establishment" rivals Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who all hover in the mid- to high 50s.

However, to understand how likable a candidate actually is, you have to take into account his or her net favorability. Although 69 percent of Republicans view Trump favorably, 29 percent view him unfavorably, a much higher number than Carson's 18 percent. The picture here is awful for Bush, who is disliked by 37 percent of respondents from his own party.

Ignoring party affiliations, 60 percent of American voters view Trump unfavorably, a sign that he is very popular with his base but provokes a strong negative reaction from the general public. In contrast, Carson tends to be well-liked by both parties.

Although Carson has had bad publicity, during the debates he has mostly hit singles by never attacking another candidate and consistently staying on message. His grandfatherly tone and sleepy demeanor probably help him avoid the negative associations Trump elicits with his braggadocious approach.

For an extremely likable candidate such as Carson, the debate strategy is usually to do no harm. One significant debate slipup can change the perception of a candidate, provided that it's memorable enough.

The ABC/Washington Post unfavorability numbers may be skewed slightly high—only about one-fifth of the respondents were Republicans, a smaller share than in the actual population. That means the people polled were mostly likely predisposed to disliking Trump. Nevertheless, the new numbers roughly match up with general trends. Based on The Huffington Post's aggregation of the most recent national polls, about 53 percent of Americans view Trump unfavorably. The ABC/Washington Post poll also shows him with the highest "strongly unfavorable" rating, a number that historically doesn't bode well for a candidate with his extraordinarily high level of name recognition.

One of the biggest questions heading into Tuesday night's debate is how Carson's positive numbers will square with his recent negative press. He may have to answer questions about his week of controversy, which started when CNN began investigating claims in his autobiography about trying to stab someone as a teenager. And he may have to respond to attacks from other candidates who question his trustworthiness, especially over his discredited claim that he got into West Point with a full scholarship. Carson's high publicity makes him a target for the moderators and the other candidates, and the more speaking time he has, the more likely he is to alienate voters with his unorthodox views on issues like Medicare—he favors abolishing it—and the debt ceiling (in a radio interview with Kai Ryssdal of public radio's Marketplace, it was apparent he didn't understand what it was).

Carson's other slipups, such as stating that the Egyptian pyramids were used to store grain, have been well-publicized on daytime TV but may not come up in Tuesday's Fox/Wall Street Journal debate, which is supposed to focus on economics.

Some of Carson's closest colleagues have been pained by his string of controversial statements. Nevertheless, it seems he still has plenty of admirers.