Republicans Favored on Issues Despite Worse Image

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The FINANCIAL — Less than half of Americans (43%) view the Democratic Party favorably, but the party’s image is still better than that of the Republican Party (38%). Neither party has been able to gain favorable opinions from a majority of the public since June 2013, in the early months of President Barack Obama’s second term.

The Democratic Party’s image has been more positive than the Republican Party’s since September 2011, except in one survey conducted shortly after the November 2014 midterm elections. The current five-percentage-point advantage for Democrats, measured after intensive months of presidential campaigning for both parties, is about the same as the advantage in July of this year.

Yet while Americans are more likely to view the Democratic Party favorably, they are split on which party is better at keeping the country prosperous. Americans are slightly more likely to say the Republican Party is better at handling whatever issue they personally define as the country’s “most important problem,” and much more likely to favor the GOP on “protecting the country from international terrorism and military threats.”

The Democratic Party has typically held an edge over the GOP on favorability in Gallup’s 23-year history of this question. That edge, however, has not extended to Americans’ views of which party is better equipped to handle key issues facing the country:

In five of the last six years, more Americans have said the Republican Party would do a better job of keeping the country prosperous.

Republicans led Democrats five of the last six years on which party would better protect the country from international terrorism and military threats. In four polls, the GOP led by at least 11 points.

Democrats trailed Republicans in 2010 and 2011 on which party would do the best job of handling the country’s “most important problem,” but regained the lead in 2012 and 2013 — only to fall behind again after that.

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From 2006 through 2009 — the last three years of George W. Bush’s presidency and the first for Obama — Americans had a much more favorable opinion of the Democratic Party than the GOP. They also picked the Democratic Party by large margins to deal with prosperity and “the most important problem.”

In 2010, major shifts occurred at the ballot box and in public opinion. Republicans took control of the House in a year when the Democratic image sank to the Republican Party’s already-low level, with unfavorable views outweighing favorable ones for the first time in five years. Americans turned from the Democratic Party to the GOP on the issue of prosperity, as an 11-point Democratic lead in 2009 turned into an eight-point Republican advantage. In the years since, Democrats have regained their lead in favorability, but not on the issues.

Republicans Are Major Source of Division

To some degree, the discrepancies in party favorability and issue competency could be based on the popularity of the incumbent president, with Americans tending to favor his party regardless of how they feel about which party can do best on the issues. This appears to have been particularly true when a Democrat is in the White House, as is the case now.

However, the data suggest another factor behind the current seemingly contradictory attitudes of some Americans: the willingness of Republicans who are unhappy with the GOP to nevertheless back the party on key issues.

Republicans are currently less likely to have a favorable opinion of their party (78%) than Democrats are to rate the Democratic Party favorably (85%). But, as noted, despite some Republicans’ relative lack of enthusiasm for their party, they are more likely to pick the GOP to deal with the issues of national security, prosperity and “the most important problem.”

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This is a significant change from eight years ago when the nation — just as it is now — was a year away from electing a new president. At that time, Republicans were more likely than they are now to view the GOP favorably, but less likely than now to choose it to deal with any of the three issues. The slight deterioration in Republicans’ overall image of their party over the past eight years could reflect the currently fractious state of the party, riven as it is by internal disputes. But with a Democrat in the White House, Republicans apparently come together when asked about their party’s ability to handle specific issues.

Bottom Line

Based on these results, each party has something to feel good about as the 2016 presidential election approaches:

Republicans can be encouraged because the public favors their party as the best able to protect the nation’s prosperity and because the party ahead on this dimension has won the presidential popular vote in 10 of 12 elections.

Democrats can counter that they have the more positive overall party image, and that in five of the last six presidential elections, the party that has had higher favorable ratings has won the popular vote.

In only one presidential election year — 2000 — has there been a split, with one party — the Democrats — having higher favorable ratings and one — the Republicans — favored by the public to keep the country prosperous. That year, the popular vote was so close that the Supreme Court wound up deciding the election.


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