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We checked if 2,000 voters recognized the 2016 candidates' faces. Here's what we found.

Michael Vadon; US Senate; State Department
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are by far the most recognizable faces in the 2016 race, a poll conducted by Morning Consult and Vox has found.

Ninety-six percent of respondents to the online poll — which reached a sample of 2,028 registered voters from Thursday, January 21, through Sunday, January 24 — correctly identified a photo of Donald Trump, and 97 percent correctly identified a photo of Clinton.

By comparison, only 61 percent and 54 percent correctly identified Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio respectively, and only 69 percent correctly ID'ed Bernie Sanders.

Why poll recognizability? Because it can be easy for political junkies who have been following the campaign closely for months to forget how many voters really haven't been paying close attention, and how hard it is for the campaigns to get their messages across to those who don't already want to hear them. It's a useful reality check to know that with less than a week to go before the Iowa caucuses, more than four in 10 Americans can't pick Marco Rubio out of a crowd.

As a baseline, the poll also included four celebrities: George Clooney, Justin Bieber, Bill Murray, and Tom Brady. Trump and Clinton were both more recognizable than any of the four, but Clooney, Bieber, and Murray were more recognizable than the other candidates. Brady was only recognized by 56 percent of respondents, well below many candidates of both parties. In fairness, he was portrayed out of uniform to prevent respondents from inferring based on the New England Patriots' mascot:

Poor Marco Rubio
The share of voters recognizing each candidate/celebrity.
Vox/Morning Consult, Vox/Javier Zarracina

Here are the seven top GOP candidates surveyed. John Kasich is by far the least recognized:

We also polled Fiorina, Santorum, Paul, and Huckabee
The most and least recognizable of the seven main GOP contenders.
Vox/Morning Consult, Vox/Javier Zarracina

Here are all three candidates on the Democratic side. Clinton and Sanders swamp Martin O'Malley, who was correctly identified by only 30 percent of respondents:

The most and least recognizable of the three Democratic contenders.
Vox/Morning Consult, Vox/Javier Zarracina

You can see the entire topline findings here and the crosstabs here.

Other significant findings

Narrowing the results to only look at the share of Republicans who recognized Republican candidates, or Democrats who recognized Democratic candidates, was less revealing than you might think. It increased overall recognition, but the relative position of candidates was largely unchanged. Here are the Republicans, for instance:

Here are the Democrats:

Interestingly, an infinitesimally greater percentage of Republicans than Democrats (70 percent versus 69 percent) could recognize Bernie Sanders.

For candidates with a sufficiently high number of supporters, we were also able to get the recognition percentage among supporters: the share of Hillary Clinton supporters who recognize her by sight, or Marco Rubio supporters who recognize him by sight, and so forth.

Trump's supporters identified him correctly 100 percent of the time, while Rubio's only got it right 76 percent of the time:

Some other quick takeaways:

  • Facial recognition generally increased with age, supporting past research showing that people become more politically aware as they age.
  • Only 63 percent of people ages 18 to 29 recognize Bill Murray; 93 percent of people 30 to 44 and 45 to 54 do.
  • Recognition was lower in general among low-income and less educated respondents.
  • Bernie Sanders and nearly all Republican candidates, including Donald Trump, were less recognized among black respondents (Ben Carson was less recognized too but not markedly so). Hillary Clinton was uniformly well-recognized regardless of race, and Martin O'Malley was poorly recognized across all ethnicities.

How the poll worked

Morning Consult's poll results are weighted to represent registered voters nationally based on respondents' age, race/ethnicity, gender, educational attainment, region, annual household income, home ownership status, and marital status. Not every respondent saw every picture, so samples for presidential candidate recognizability varied from a low of 790 to a high of 895. For celebrities the samples were smaller, ranging from 449 to 551.

Users were presented with images of candidates and asked to pick from a long list of possible answers. Here, for instance, is the question for Marco Rubio:

Morning Consult / US Senate official portrait
Name-based favorability for 2016 Democratic candidates Morning Consult

Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren were added to the options list despite not being shown to anyone, to help correct for respondents who might otherwise see a picture of a woman and just choose "Hillary" or "Carly" because those were the only two women's names listed.

The poll also tested how images affected respondents' favorability ratings of the various candidates. One-third of respondents rated all 14 presidential candidates' favorability only using the candidates' names, which looked like this for the Democratic candidates:

Name-based favorability for 2016 Democratic candidates Morning Consult

One-third rated them using only a photo but no name:

Poll with photos but no names, for Democrats Morning Consult

And one-third rated them using both the name and photo:

Photo+name favorability questions for Democrats Morning Consult

In general, candidates received higher favorable ratings and higher unfavorable ratings when only their names were shown than when only their photos were shown. That suggests that voters are more familiar with candidates by name than by appearance.

The effects on favorability were overall quite small. The main effect of showing photos rather than names was to increase the share of people reporting no opinion.

There were some exceptions, however. Donald Trump gained 4 points of unfavorability when respondents only saw his photo, and Carly Fiorina gained 3 points. Ben Carson was the only candidate to see a real increase in favorability when his photo was shown relative to his name; John Kasich's favorability was low no matter how the question was asked, as many respondents weren't familiar with him.

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