Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan is expected to step into the role of speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives later this week, and he will do so as a fairly well-known and well-liked figure within his own party. This could be a disorienting change from outgoing speaker, John Boehner, who has been viewed more unfavorably than favorably in recent weeks by the Republican rank and file.
When Gallup last measured Ryan's public image in 2014, 57% of Republicans viewed him favorably and just 6% unfavorably. The remaining 37% had no opinion or hadn't heard of him. And it's reasonable to assume his image remains positive today -- if anything the publicity surrounding his decision to run for speaker has likely stoked positive feelings about Ryan. By contrast, Gallup's latest rating of Boehner from mid-October showed 36% of Republicans viewing him favorably, 42% unfavorably and 22% unsure.
In other words, Ryan's negatives among Republicans are close to zero, while Boehner's were swamping him.
Ryan enjoyed even broader name identification and favorability among Republicans in 2012 when he was Mitt Romney's running mate on the GOP presidential ticket, and this carried over into 2013. By 2014, after two years of absence from the front pages, Ryan's "no opinion" rating doubled to 37%, but the percentage viewing him negatively remained in the single digits.
Can Ryan sustain the goodwill, or is a downturn inevitable?
When Boehner became speaker in 2011, he was also well-known, having previously served as House minority leader, and he was well-liked within the party. On the eve of his speakership in November 2010, 66% of Republicans viewed him favorably and only 4% unfavorably. But that slowly, almost inexorably, changed until his favorable and unfavorable lines finally crossed this year.
The good news for Ryan, who might worry the same fate awaits him, is that Boehner's image trajectory among his home team is hardly the norm, in fact it's the worst of the last four U.S. House speakers.
Boehner's favorable rating among national Republicans is down 30 percentage points compared with the 66% he received just prior to becoming speaker. By contrast, over the course of Dennis Hastert's reign, his favorable score increased from 36% within his first year to 48% in 2006 -- mainly as he became better known. Hastert's unfavorable score also increased, from 5% to 23%, but he was still viewed much more positively than negatively by Republicans at the end, even though his final days were spent deflecting a variety of Republican scandals.
Nancy Pelosi wrapped up her high-profile four years as speaker with a 62% favorable rating among Democrats in October 2010, barely lower than her initial 69% in 2007. The pattern was the same for the conspicuous Newt Gingrich, who was viewed favorably by a solid 61% of Republicans on his way out of the speaker's chamber in December 1998, even after he announced he would be stepping down due to his party's disappointing midterm election results that year.
Ryan still has much to prove, and the job can be thankless. Congressional leaders bear the brunt of public antipathy toward Congress and the polarization of Americans' political views. Both factors typically contribute to keeping a speaker's overall favorable rating well below 40%. But as Boehner has demonstrated, even maintaining a positive net favorable score with Republicans can be difficult for a Republican speaker, and Ryan has his work cut out for him with another political tempest brewing over raising the federal debt ceiling. The first test of his success in the coming months will be keeping his favorability high among Republicans, because without it he will be on the fast track to Boehner-ville.