The Gallup organization recently recorded another dreary milestone in American politics. For the first time since the polling organization began tracking public impressions of the Republican and Democratic parties back in 1992, neither party has a favorability rating above 40 percent.
Whether this is now the rough new normal or an aberrational moment isn’t the issue. What’s most interesting is the degree to which the public now registers sizable disapproval of both major parties that represent them. That reflects another turn in the downward spiral in public confidence.
At this point, just 37 percent of Americans say they have a favorable impression of the Republican Party. That is a decline of 5 points since the midterm elections, when Republicans scored major victories and interpreted the results as a sign of public affirmation for their agenda and leadership.
It also represents a reversal of an upward swing that had begun in late 2013, when the party’s rating had plummeted to 28 percent after the partial shutdown of the government engineered by the GOP hardliners in Congress.
In the wake of their midterm victories, which put them in charge of both the House and Senate, Republicans promised they would prove they can govern. The first months of the new Congress have undermined that assertion.
The GOP has struggled to pull its warring wings together. The leadership in the House suffered an embarrassing moment when conservatives blocked a temporary funding bill, forcing House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, eventually to rely on Democrats to get the job done.
This past week, the party presented a budget blueprint in the House that, in addition to relying on gimmicks, sparked a dispute between GOP defense hawks and spending hawks. That dispute is heading to the House floor.
In the Senate, a partisan stalemate over abortion language in a human trafficking bill prompted GOP leaders to put on hold – until the impasse is resolve – the confirmation vote on North Carolina native Loretta Lynch as the new attorney general.
Democrats might have avoided this had they dealt with the provision while the bill was still in committee, which they failed to do. But for the GOP, holding up the confirmation vote on Lynch, who is black, is hardly a smart strategy for expanding their appeal to minority voters.
For Democrats, the current favorability rating of 39 percent represents a three-point rise since the midterms. So in a matter of months, maybe Democrats will be back above 40. What should be more worrisome for the Democrats is that the party has been, in general, on a downward path in Gallup’s finding for more than four years.
The Democrats saw a bump up to 51 percent favorability right after President Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012, but for the most part their rating has been below 50 since spring 2010.
Gallup’s report notes that the patterns of public perception have followed one of two paths since 1992. At times over the past two decades, both parties were viewed favorably, as was the case in the years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. At other times, one party enjoyed higher ratings than the other, and generally it was Democrats who were perceived more favorably.
Today, with both parties below 40 percent, a new pattern has emerged: The public finds little to like in either party, a reflection of the broader mood of disgust toward Washington.
The president enjoys better numbers than either party. The same Gallup survey found his favorability rating at 49 percent, up 7 points since the midterms. But his current approval ratings are nothing to boast about, and he seems to have limited ability to influence opinions about his party.
After the midterms, Obama’s approval ratings rose and remain better today than they were during much of the election year last year. They are now in the range of 46 to 47 percent, rather than 42 to 43 percent much of last year. Still, a look at the Polling Report’s list of major surveys taken this year shows that in only two cases out of 15 are the president’s approval ratings net positive.
Since the midterm elections, Republicans have seen their standing fall among virtually every demographic group, with the biggest numerical declines coming among men, adults between the ages of 35 and 54, and self-identified independents.
The biggest drop of all came among those who have attended college but did not graduate, a group that has been a target for the GOP. Among these Americans, the party’s favorability fell from 48 percent around election time last fall to 38 percent today.
Overall, the party’s ratings are in inverse proportion to educational levels in the population. The GOP’s best ratings come from those who did not attend college; the worst, at 32 percent, are among those with college degrees. That is another emerging trend, with Democrats doing better and better among those with the highest levels of education.
Influence of numbers
Party leaders will draw their own conclusions about the meaning of these numbers, or perhaps simply ignore them. Partisan polarization has driven both parties farther apart, with each preaching to their respective choirs. Beyond that, Republicans continue to suffer from self-inflicted wounds as a result of the fractures in their coalition in Congress.
Republicans might dismiss the findings by saying that public dissatisfaction with the party didn’t stop them from winning a big victory last November. Democrats think the public is on their side on some major issues and see the president moving to satisfy the coalition that helped him win two elections.
Beneath all that, however, remains the reality that many Americans, regardless of party, see little in the current party system that gives them confidence that politicians are working in their behalf.
With each election, the winning side has assumed that the results would prompt some kind of change in behavior in the relationship between Republicans and Democrats in Washington. It hasn’t happened. There is little from the first months of the new balance of power in Washington to suggest it will happen during Obama’s final years in office.
The crop of 2016 GOP presidential candidates and the dominant Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, will have a lot to say about a lot of things over the next year and a half. So far they’ve been silent about a solution to the persistent ailment that could prevent whoever wins the presidency from governing successfully.