I always appreciate when pollsters break out of the box a little to ask questions that explore an issue in a weird way. That's not to disparage our beloved pollsters, of course; it's just that polling is expensive, and you only get so much of a respondent's time. So praise to the folks at Fairleigh Dickinson University who were sitting around one day and were like, "But what if Hillary Clinton were actually running against Mike Pence?" Someone grabbed a pen to write the idea down, and a poll was born.
First the pollsters asked the expected question. In a four-way race between Clinton, Donald Trump, Libertarian Gary Johnson and Jill Stein of the Green Party, who would you prefer? Clinton was preferred by nine points, with Johnson getting 11 percent and Stein three.
But they only asked that question of half of the respondents. The other half got a variant, pitting Clinton and Trump against James Hedges and Monica Moorehead.
You, right now: Against ... who?
Hedges is the Amish-bearded candidate at the top of the Prohibition Party ticket. Moorehead is the presidential candidate for the Workers World Party. Neither, it's safe to say, is likely to fare very well.
Nonetheless, each did as well as Stein.
What does this tell us? For some time, I've argued that the unpopularity of Clinton and Trump opened a door for, well, just about anyone else. If you have to pick between something you hate, something else you hate and something you've never heard of, a lot of people will pick the thing they haven't heard of. Particularly young people. When the pollsters combined the results for the third party candidates, it was younger voters who were most likely to be lured away.
Among the people that many voters haven't really heard about are the vice presidential candidates. In the most recent CNN-ORC poll, about a third of respondents said they'd never heard or had no opinion of Tim Kaine or Mike Pence. So, unsurprisingly, when we slot them in against the top of the other ticket, each does better. Clinton beats Trump by 10 points 1-on-1, but Kaine beats him by 16. Pence loses to Clinton, too, but only by a point.
The difference-maker in that Pence-Clinton match-up is largely young people, who swing more than 20 points in the Republicans' direction when it's not Trump that's running.
The group in CNN's polling least likely to have heard of Pence? Those under the age of 35, a fifth of whom weren't familiar with him.
Perhaps the most effective thing the major-party candidates could do for their chances in November would be to change their names from Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to Generic Democrat and Ordinary Republican. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but probably not too much. A quarter of young voters told CNN they'd never heard of Tim Kaine, but in Fairleigh Dickinson's poll they preferred him to Trump by 22 points. Generic Democrat could win this in a walk.