Why GOP's predicted gains in midterm elections might be short-lived

A new poll suggests that the Republican Party is actually viewed less positively than the Democratic Party. That doesn't mean the GOP won't make gains in midterm elections. But it does mean Americans will likely give Republicans little time to make an impact.

Everyone knows the Democratic Party is unpopular and that it stands to lose a substantial number of House and Senate seats come November, perhaps even control of one or both chambers.

But in fact, the public thinks worse of the Republicans, according to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. The poll shows 24 percent of Americans view the Republican Party positively, an all-time low in the poll’s 21-year history. That compares with a 33 percent positive rating for the Democrats. The negative ratings are comparable – 46 percent unfavorable for the Republicans, 44 percent for the Democrats.

Those numbers do not foretell major losses for the Republican incumbents. Generalized unhappiness with the GOP does not necessarily mean discontent with one’s member of Congress.

Most important, the Democrats control both Congress and the White House, and voters will take out their frustration over the state of the country on them. In particular, a well-documented enthusiasm gap, demonstrated most recently in Tuesday’s higher turnout numbers for Republicans over Democrats in the primaries, means GOP voters are more motivated to go out and vote against Democrats than Democrats are to support their own party.

The 'short fuse' electorate

But these numbers present a warning to Republicans: Voters may support them in November and give them big gains, but if they don’t deliver, they could be in trouble. This is particularly so if the Republicans take over at least the House and don’t accomplish much, they could be short-timers.

After all, it’s only been three-plus years since the Democrats took over both houses of Congress, and the pendulum has already swung sharply in the opposite direction.

“The public’s on a really short fuse nowadays,” says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. “And it’s because times are bad. We’re at war, the economy is terrible.”

Democratic pollster Peter Hart, codirector of the NBC/WSJ poll, calls it a “JetBlue election.” “Everyone is frustrated,” Mr. Hart told NBC. “And everyone is headed for the emergency exit.”

A GOP campaign agenda: Does it matter?

Congressional Republicans have yet to come out with a policy agenda to run on in the November midterms, but they are promising to do so next month. For now, they’re on a listening tour.

But Mr. Schier isn’t sure a 2010 version of the Contract With America – the GOP’s list of 10 action items released in the run-up to their successful 1994 takeover of Congress – will have much lasting impact for the Republicans. Even in 1994, most voters weren’t aware of the Contract when they handed the Republicans a 53-seat gain and control of the House.

An agenda for 2010 “could help them short-term in the cycle, if the specifics are well received, and certain candidates use them as a message in certain districts successfully,” says Schier. But, he adds, there’s little Republicans can do about their brand until they have a presidential candidate.

In a bit of hopeful news for the Democrats, the NBC/WSJ poll shows that the public generically prefers congressional Republicans over Democrats only in the South, where it’s 52 percent to 31 percent. In the Northeast, the Democrats lead 55-30. In the Midwest, they lead 49-38. And in the West, they’re up by one, 44-43.

“Yet do keep this caveat in mind,” says the analysis on MSNBC.com. “Many of the congressional districts Republicans are targeting outside of the South resemble some of those Southern districts they're hoping to win back in November – where you have whiter and older voters.”

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