Why Polls Still Show Democrats With Higher Marks Than Republicans

by Stuart Rothenberg March 11, 2014 · 4:29 PM EDT

Political brands are important. If a candidate or political party has a damaged political brand, it’s harder for them to sell themselves to voters. But sometimes a poll’s top lines can be deceiving, so you need to look a little below the surface to understand what is going on.

Everyone knows that the Republican Party’s brand stinks, and while the Democratic brand is still mediocre, it’s measurably better than the GOP’s.

A Feb. 19-23 CBS News/New York Times poll found that only 33 percent of respondents had a favorable view of the Republican Party, while a stunning 61 percent had an unfavorable view. In contrast, 42 percent of respondents had a favorable view of the Democratic Party, while only 53 percent had an unfavorable view.

So the Democratic brand was about 10 points better than the GOP’s in the CBS News/New York Times survey.

That conclusion should feed the Democratic argument that while voters have problems with President Barack Obama, they have even more problems with the Republican Party going into the midterm elections. Voters who don’t like the GOP are an obvious target for Democratic strategists.

Some of that is true, of course, but if you get into the weeds on that question, something potentially important emerges. When the CBS News/New York Times poll pulled out the results by party, it found that independent voters had almost identical feelings about both parties.

I didn’t expect this from the top-line numbers. In fact, I assumed most of the Democratic brand advantage stemmed from the GOP’s terrible reputation among independents.

But the survey showed that while 31 percent of independents had a favorable view of the GOP, 30 percent had a favorable view of the Democratic Party. And while 60 percent of independents had an unfavorable opinion of the Republican Party, 61 percent had an unfavorable view of the Democratic Party.

How could independents have the same view of the two parties and yet the Republican brand be about 10 points worse among all respondents?

The answer is clear in the data: Republican respondents had a much more negative view of their own party than Democrats had of their party.

A stunning 29 percent of Republicans had an unfavorable view of the GOP, while only 14 percent of Democrats had an unfavorable view of their party. Only 67 percent of Republicans had a favorable view of the GOP, while 85 percent of Democrats had a favorable view of the Democratic Party.

This result isn’t entirely surprising, considering the high-profile nature of the fight inside the Republican Party and the coverage of the government shutdown in October.

Tea party and libertarian conservatives think the GOP is Speaker John A. Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and what they call “RINO” (Republican In Name Only) Republicans — whom they see as a bunch of squishes who sell out to Democrats all too quickly.

On the other hand, the GOP’s business/establishment wing thinks the party has been taken over by Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia and a bunch of crackpots who are driving the party into the ground.

Because of this, a substantial chunk of Republicans have an unfavorable view of their own party.

Democrats have some internal disagreements, but the divisions — at least right now — are not terribly wide or deep. Most Democrats are comfortable with the president’s agenda.

Unfortunately for Democrats, from a strategic point of view, Republicans’ battered image of their own party isn’t likely going to be a serious problem for the GOP in the fall elections. That’s because, when the midterms roll around in November, Republican voters will vote for Republican nominees, and Democrats will vote for Democratic nominees. That’s what almost always happens.

In 2012, according to the national exit poll, 92 percent of Democrats vote for Obama, while only 7 percent voted for GOP nominee Mitt Romney. But only 7 percent of Republicans voted for Obama, while 93 percent preferred Romney.

Four years earlier, Democrats went 89 percent to 10 percent for Obama, while Republicans went for the GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain, over Obama by 90 percent to 9 percent.

In the 2010 midterms, a landslide for the GOP, there were relatively few base defections. An overwhelming 94 percent of Republicans voted for Republican House candidates, while only 5 percent voted for Democratic House candidates. Among Democratic voters, 91 percent voted for Democratic House candidates, while only 7 percent vote for GOP House candidates.

Of course each party’s base vote is crucial, and if one party’s base turns out and the other party’s does not, the election would be one-sided and overwhelming. But that probably isn’t likely to happen in this highly charged, highly polarized political environment.

So, the impressions and vote intentions of “independents” are important, and the fact that independents don’t have a more negative view of the GOP than of the Democratic Party — at least in the most recent CBS News/New York Times survey — is worth noting and is potentially significant.