How bad is the GOP's image problem?

A new survey puts the GOP last in the ratings of 11 political figures and institutions. But the tide of US politics ebbs and flows – and in the 'fiscal cliff' negotiations, many Americans appear to be holding both sides accountable.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio points to a chart while speaking to reporters in the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 13. Congressional leaders and the Obama administration are attempting to negotiate a deal to avoid the so-called 'fiscal cliff' and work toward a deficit reduction package in the next session of Congress that begins in January.

How bad is the Republican Party’s image problem? Pretty bad, according to the latest polls. A just-released NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey put the GOP dead last in the ratings of 11 political figures and institutions, for instance. Fully 45 percent of respondents said their feelings about the party of Abraham Lincoln were now “somewhat” or “very” negative.

Part of the GOP’s problem is that losing a presidential election isn’t good for your brand. Many voters probably still see the Romney campaign as the face of the party as a whole. Part of it stems from the fact that there are now more self-identified Democrats in America than Republicans. Partisans usually disapprove of the other US political team.

But there’s no escaping the fact that in general, voters now see the GOP as an unappealing product. Asked an open-ended question about which word would best describe the party, 65 percent of respondents to the NBC/WSJ poll said something negative, such as “bad” or “outdated”. It’s as if it was a Ford Pinto, or bottled water for pets.

A Pew Research poll released Thursday had similar results. Only 25 percent of respondents approved of the way Republican leaders in Congress are doing their jobs. Democratic congressional leaders had a 40 percent approval rating in the Pew survey, while President Obama’s comparable figure was 55.

It thus appears the administration has public opinion on its side in the negotiations over ways to avoid the “fiscal cliff” of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts. Fifty-five percent of Pew respondents said Mr. Obama was making a serious effort to reach agreement on the budget deficit, while only 32 percent said the same thing of GOP leaders.

But Democrats shouldn’t start hiring the DJ for the victory party just yet. There are indications within these surveys that the GOP’s image is in part cyclical – and that the Democratic Party would not escape blame if no agreement is reached and Obama and House Speaker John Boehner plunge together over the fiscal cliff’s Reichenbach Falls.

On the cyclical point, there’s one striking part of the NBC/WSJ poll in which respondents rate their feelings about Obama’s reelection. Thirty percent say they are “optimistic,” 23 percent say they are “satisfied,” 17 percent say they are “uncertain,” and 30 percent say they are “pessimistic.”

Those responses are virtually identical to the ones voters gave in 2004 when the same pollsters asked how people felt about George W. Bush’s reelection.

We’re not saying that Republicans don’t need to reach out to Hispanics, or try to appear less the party of plutocrats, or develop new leaders. We’re just saying that the tide of US politics ebbs and flows. By 2016, we’re fairly certain the GOP will not appear as if it’s about to march off the stage of history, as did the Whigs.

As for blame, it’s true that more voters say they’d blame Republicans than say they’d blame Democrats if the United States plunges over the fiscal cliff. That disparity is 24 percent to 19 percent in the NBC/WSJ poll.

But that is not a huge difference. And the real story in that answer may be that fully 56 percent of respondents said that both sides would be equally to blame if no deal is reached.

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