The Astonishing Unpopularity of Congressional Republicans

Main St. Agenda by from The Weekly Standard, September 9, 2014

Analysts (including myself) have often noted that congressional Democrats have higher favorable numbers than Republicans. Frequently, this is taken to suggest an electoral advantage for Democrats.

I agree that it is, on balance, bad news for the GOP — but not in a straightforward way. Data from the ABC News/Washington Post poll illustrates why. Here is its breakdown of approval for congressional Democrats by party identification:

As you can see, Democrats do terribly with swing voters, picking up only 27 percent of independents. A filibuster-proof majority of the country disapproves of them.

What about Republicans? It is worse, but the reason why is interesting.

First off, note that Republicans do worse with independents than Democrats. On the other hand, they do better with Democrats than Democrats do with Republicans. So, the two probably wash out on net.

The real difference is with their own partisans. Congressional Democrats are managing to hold together a majority of their own side while congressional Republicans see 3/5ths of their core supporters disapproving. And more than 1/5th disapprove of their own party strongly!

At least in the case of the ABC News/Washington Post poll, this divergence explains the entire gapbetween the two sides. Democrats have a higher approval rating because Democrats still approve of them. Full stop.

That is really astonishing to me.

So, to borrow a phrase, “What difference, at this point, does it make?” I do not think there are any undecided voters out there looking at the two parties, then concluding, Well, I like the Democrats but don’t like the Republicans. So, I’m pulling the lever for D! Electorally speaking, the difference between 15 percent approval and 27 percent approval among independents is negligible. The swing vote in the country hates both parties.

My worry is: how can a political party — in this case the GOP — sustain itself when its own voters so consistently dislike it? The time factor is what bugs me in particular. This has been the case for quite some time; you simply do not get results as low as 20 percent unless your own voters dislike you. And Republicans have been registering approval ratings in the 20s for over two years.

The Republican party clearly has a kind of principal-agent problem right now. The agents (party leadership in Congress) are failing to do what their principals (Republican voters nationwide) want done. I think it is a combination of misplaced focus (e.g. the immigration push), bad strategy (e.g. the failure to coordinate between House and Senate Republicans on the shutdown), and an overall failure to set expectations (which were raised extraordinarily high to win the House in 2010).

In 2000 George W. Bush offered “compassionate conservatism.” This was in part a subtle rebuke of the unpopular 104th Congress. (And in fairness Republicans in Congress saw the writing on the wall after the Winter 1995 shutdown, and shifted toward conciliation thereafter.) The Republican nominee in 2016 is going to have to execute a similar maneuver — not only with the general electorate but also with the primary electorate as well. There has to be some message implanted — subtly, so as not to ruffle important feathers on Capitol Hill — that the Republican nominee can check this unpopular faction of the party.

I don’t know how that happens. But with a 31 percent approval among your own voters, I know it has to.

 © 2014 Weekly Standard LLC. Reprinted with permission.