Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Midterm Election Challenges for Both Parties

Section 3: Views of the Parties

Democrats Lose Favorability Edge

The favorability advantage the Democratic Party has held over the Republican Party has disappeared over the past year. Currently, 48% of Americans offer a favorable assessment of the Democratic Party, while 46% view the GOP favorably. This reflects a combination of a steep decline in the Democratic Party’s image over the first half of 2009, and a more modest uptick in the GOP’s image more recently.

For the first time since a brief spike in positive opinion in the week following the Republican Convention in 2008, as many Americans view the GOP favorably as unfavorably (46% each). For the better part of four years, GOP favorability has held steady at around 40%, with half or more expressing an unfavorable view of the party. The last time the Republican Party’s ratings were substantially higher than they are today was in 2004.

Republicans are happier with their party than they were in early 2009. A year ago, just 74% of Republicans gave their own party a favorable rating; 82% do so today. But the GOP also looks somewhat better to Democrats than was the case in August (23% favorable today, 16% in August). There has been little change in the assessments of independents; 42% of independents now view the GOP favorably, compared with 49% who view it unfavorably.

There has been little change in the Democratic Party’s overall image over the past six months; today 48% view the party favorably and 44% unfavorably, little changed from a 49% to 40% division in August 2009. But favorability ratings of the Democratic Party had dropped steeply in the early part of 2009 – from 62% to 49% between January and August of last year.

The downturn in ratings of the Democratic Party over the course of the year is driven by increasingly negative reactions from both Republicans and independents. In particular, the share of independents who rate the Democratic Party favorably fell from 58% last January to 40% both last August and today. As a result, independents’ ratings of the GOP (42% favorable, 49% unfavorable) and the Democratic Party (40% favorable, 50% unfavorable) are virtually identical today.

The Democratic Party had consistently enjoyed a favorability advantage over the past four years. In fact, in January of last year, the 22-point difference between ratings of the Democratic Party (62% favorable) and the Republican Party (40% favorable) was the largest gap in Pew Research Center polling since 1992. The combination of Democratic declines and Republican gains over the past year has resulted in the smallest gap in party ratings since July 2005.

Party Images

Americans offer a wide range of responses when asked to describe in their own words what the political parties stand for these days. Some of the most common descriptions of the Republican Party are negative – that it is for the rich, corporate interests and greed, or that it is only looking out for its own political interests. By contrast, the most common descriptions of the Democratic Party are that it stands for the average person, the middle class or working class Americans. Critics, though, say the party stands for bigger government and more spending, and socialism or communism.

Neither Party Seen as Offering Solutions

While favorability ratings of the Republican Party now rival the Democrats, the party gets poor ratings for its political performance. Just 29% of Americans say the Republican Party has done a good job of offering solutions to the country’s problems over the past year – twice that number (60%) say they have done a poor job. The Democratic Party does only somewhat better – 40% good job, 52% poor job.

The Republican Party lags in this measure because Republicans themselves are far from enthusiastic about how their leaders have performed. Just 54% of Republicans say that their party has done a good job of offering solutions to the country’s problems over the past year. This compares with 70% of Democrats who say their party has done a good job in this regard.

As with overall favorability, independents are equally sour toward both parties; just three-in-ten (30%) say the GOP has done a good job of offering solutions to the country’s problems over the past year, and 36% say the same about the Democrats.

In terms of both favorability and performance, the Republican Party in 2010 lags far behind where the party stood in early 1994, when it went on to win majorities in both the House and Senate later in the year. Fully 63% of Americans had a favorable impression of the GOP in July 1994 – on par with the Democrats’ positive image (62% favorable) at the time. And in March 1994, 41% felt the GOP had done a good job of offering solutions to the country’s problems, compared with 29% who say this about the Republican Party today.

Democrats Satisfied With Party’s Performance

While the Democratic Party has lost some of its advantages over the GOP over the past year, there is little evidence that Democrats themselves are becoming dissatisfied with their party’s performance. Fully 84% of Democrats continue to offer a favorable assessment of the party, down only slightly from a year ago (90% in January 2009). There is, however, a more substantial drop in the number rating the party very favorably: from 35% a year ago to 20% today.

At the same time, 63% of Democrats continue to say that the party is doing an excellent or a good job of standing up for its traditional positions on such things as protecting the interests of minorities, helping the poor and needy, and representing working people. This is virtually unchanged from last April (61%) and represents a continuing upward trend in Democratic ratings from 54% in September 2008 and 43% in October 2007.

While Republicans are substantially happier with their party now than they were last April, most Republicans still offer a negative assessment of party leaders when it comes to traditional party issues. The number of Republicans who believe the party is doing an excellent or good job standing up for its traditional positions on such things as reducing the size of government, cutting taxes and promoting conservative social values rose from 24% last April to 37% today. But 61% say that the party’s leaders are doing only a fair or a poor job in this regard.

There are no substantial ideological divides within either party in rating their party’s performance on traditional issues. Comparable percentages of conservative Republicans (63%) and moderate and liberal Republicans (57%) offer critical assessments of the GOP’s performance on traditional party positions. Among Democrats, wide majorities of both liberal (61%) and moderate and conservative (64%) Democrats offer positive ratings for the party.

Who Wants Compromise?

There is far more of a partisan gap in willingness to compromise today than was the case a few years ago. Just 52% of Americans who believe the GOP can do the best job of handling the nation’s most important issue say they think Republican leaders should be willing to compromise on that issue with Democrats. This is down from 63% in January of 2007, after the Democrats regained control of the House and Senate.

By contrast, Democratic supporters are overwhelmingly supportive of compromise. Roughly seven-in-ten (71%) Americans who believe the Democrats can do a better job on the nation’s most important issue say that party leaders should be willing to compromise on that issue, up from 60% three years ago.

Party Strengths

While the Democratic Party continues to maintain an edge on most issues, the GOP has narrowed many of the gaps in public assessments of the parties’ relative capabilities over the past six months. The proportion saying the GOP is better able to handle the economy has risen six points (from 32% to 38%), and there have been similar increases in the share preferring the Republican Party on the issues of deficit reduction (from 35% to 42%), education (22% to 29%), energy (25% to 32%) and dealing with terrorist threat at home (38% to 46%). On all of these issues, there has been no significant change in the number saying the Democrats can do the better job.

As a result of these GOP gains, Republicans now lead (42% vs. 36%) as the party viewed as better able to reduce the budget deficit; six months ago the parties were virtually tied (36% Democrats, 35% Republicans). In addition, the GOP has widened its lead as the party seen as better able to deal with terrorist threats, from six points last August to 17 points (46% vs. 29%) today.

On most other issues, Democrats hold substantially narrower leads today than they did last August. Roughly as many now choose the Republican Party (38%) as the Democratic Party (41%) to better handle the economy, and Republicans have gained ground on health care and energy.

The same pattern is evident when it comes to many public assessments of the parties’ relative strengths. For example, in August just 25% said the Republican Party could bring about needed change, while 47% said the Democratic Party. Today, 34% select the GOP

as the party of change, while the proportion choosing the Democrats has not changed (46%).

The Republican Party has pulled even with the Democratic Party in terms of who can better manage the government (40% Democrats, 40% Republicans). The GOP still trails the Democratic Party in assessments of which selects better candidates for office (35% Republican Party, 42% Democratic Party), but the Democratic Party’s lead on this trait is considerably narrower than it was six months ago. The GOP continues to be viewed as the party more often influenced by lobbyists and special interests; 40% say this better describes the Republican Party compared with 32% for the Democratic Party.

Independents’ evaluations of the political parties have shifted substantially on many issues since last year. The proportion of independents who think the Republican Party can better handle the economy has increased from 27% to 37% since August. Currently, independents rate the two parties about evenly on the economy; last August, the Democrats were favored by 11 points on this issue. Similarly, wide Democratic leads among independents on the issues of education and energy have been reduced, as confidence in the GOP among independents has risen.

And on two key issues, the deficit and terrorism – the GOP has opened large leads among independents. In August, roughly as many independents favored the Democratic Party (30%) as the Republican Party (33%) to better reduce the budget deficit. Today, the GOP holds a 42% to 28% lead on this issue among independents. And while the GOP held a slim edge (33% to 27%) among independents as the party better able to deal with the terroorist threat at home, its advantage has grown to a 48% to 19% lead in the latest poll.

A similar pattern is seen in evaluations of leadership traits. For example, the proportion of independents saying the GOP can better manage the federal government rose from 29% to 43% since August, opening up a 12-point Republican advantage on this trait.

Views of the Tea Party Movement

More Americans express a favorable (33%) than unfavorable (25%) view of the Tea Party movement, but a large plurality of Americans (42%) either have never heard of the movement or if they have heard of it do not have an opinion.

Republicans are somewhat more likely to offer an opinion of the Tea Party movement, and their opinion is overwhelmingly favorable (51% vs. 10% unfavorable). This is driven by particularly favorable opinions (59%) among conservative Republicans. Among Democrats, just 21% offer a favorable assessment of the Tea Party movement, while 37% see it unfavorably. The balance of opinion is most negative among liberal Democrats, 46% of whom offer an unfavorable assessment. More independents see the Tea Party movement favorably (34%) than unfavorably (24%).

Men are slightly more likely than women to view the Tea Party movement favorably (37% vs. 30%). There is little difference in the balance of opinion across age groups. The movement’s negatives are higher among more educated Americans: 32% of college graduates view the Tea Party movement unfavorably, compared with just 19% of people who did not attend college

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