Losing Faith in the GOP

Pundits went into overdrive last week as they assessed President Obama's first 100 days in office. But what about the GOP's first 100 days in opposition?

Sen. Arlen Specter's defection to the Democratic Party last Tuesday is just one of many indicators pointing to a party in deep and serious trouble. Poll results reveal that the number of self-identified Republicans is falling--and those who remain in the party are decidedly unenthusiastic about it.

In his announcement, Specter was unusually candid in discussing the reason for the switch: his belief that he could not win reelection as a Republican next year. In a new Pew Research Center compilation of interviews conducted thus far this year in Pennsylvania, 38% of residents there identified themselves as Democrats. Of the remainder, more said they were independents (29%) than Republicans (27%)! But the problem for the GOP is much broader than its thinning ranks in the Northeast.

Harris reported recently that Democrats had a double-digit lead over the GOP on party identification in its national polling for the first time since 1983. Gallup's year-end 2008 round up found the Democratic Party has its largest advantage since 1988, when Gallup began regularly conducting telephone surveys on the subject. And a poll out last week from ABC News and the Washington Post found the fewest numbers of Republicans in their surveys since 1983. Finally, last week, Pew reported the Republicans have lost a quarter of their base since 2004. Young people in particular are solidly in the Democratic camp today; if "Gen Dem" loyalty holds, the GOP will have a lot of catching up to do.

Surprisingly, even more discouraging for the GOP are the views of people who still identify as Republicans. In a new CBS News/New York Times poll, 88% of respondents who self-identified Democrats had a favorable view of the Democratic Party. But only 62% of Republicans had a favorable view of the Republican Party.

Republicans have big problems that begin at home.

In a new Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 80% of Democrats approved of the job Democrats in Congress were doing; just 56% of Republicans approved of the job Republicans in Congress were doing.

Eighty-seven percent of Democrats who responded to a recent Pew Research Center survey had a great deal or fair amount of confidence in Democratic leaders in Congress to do the right thing about fixing the economy. On this score, only two-thirds of Republicans had the same level of confidence in Republican congressional leaders.

In the CBS News/New York Times poll, 85% of Democrats said the Democratic Party was more concerned than the Republican Party about the needs and problems of people like them; 58% of Republicans felt their party was more concerned than the Democrats about their needs and problems.

In a March Princeton Survey Research Associates poll for Newsweek, 45% of Republicans said Republicans who opposed Barack Obama's economic proposals had a plan of their own to turn the economy around, but almost as many, 42%, said they didn't have a plan.

A few new polls from recent days, however, provide a thin ray of hope for the GOP. As Pew's report on its party identification for the first four months of 2009 put it: "Republican losses [this year] have not translated in substantial Democratic gains." As identification with that party has dropped, more people are moving into the independent, not Democratic, camp.

Still, why are Republicans so down on their party? Surely one explanation is what we call a winners' premium, a hangover from a big election defeat and a president with a string of early victories.

Beyond that, though, having no clear and charismatic leader who unites and speaks for the party must be dispiriting. New studies from the Center for Media and Public Affairs and the Pew Research Center's Project on Excellence in Journalism confirm that Barack Obama has enjoyed more positive coverage than either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush did in the early months of their administrations. The GOP's new ideas offensive, dubbed the National Council for a New America, hopes to make a dent in the media's pro-Obama coverage.

Whatever the reasons, and whatever the proposed solutions, the survey results are clear: Republicans have big problems that begin at home.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • Karlyn Bowman compiles and analyzes American public opinion using available polling data on a variety of subjects, including the economy, taxes, the state of workers in America, environment and global warming, attitudes about homosexuality and gay marriage, NAFTA and free trade, the war in Iraq, and women's attitudes. In addition, Ms. Bowman has studied and spoken about the evolution of American politics because of key demographic and geographic changes. She has often lectured on the role of think tanks in the United States and writes a weekly column for Forbes.com.
  • Phone: 2028625910
    Email: kbowman@aei.org
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