Republicans have a message problem, not a messenger problem

December 21, 2012

What ails the GOP?

In a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, it's the message that appears to be the problem, not the messengers who are delivering it.


The GOP presidential candidates participate in a debate. (John Raoux/AP)

A majority of Americans (53 percent) say the Republicans' problem is that they are overly conservative and unconcerned “with the welfare of the people, particularly those in the lower and middle income levels.” By contrast, 38 percent say the bigger issue is that  Republicans “need a better leader to explain and win support” for their policies.

The Republican Party faced similar questions in 1949, after losing the previous five presidential contests. (Today, the party has lost the popular vote in five out of the last six elections.) That's when Gallup first asked the question that is repeated in the new Post-ABC poll. After Harry S. Truman won in 1948, some wondered about the future of the GOP as a national party, with Gallup asking the question in April 1949, just before the 100-day-mark of Truman’s full term.

Just like today, more people in that poll 63 years ago described the GOP's problem as one of policies more than leadership -- although, at the time, more people saw both as problematic or expressed no opinion to the in-person survey.

In the new poll, nearly two-thirds of self-described Republicans see insufficient leadership and explanation of policies as the reason the party has endured a string of popular vote defeats. About eight in 10 Democrats take the opposing view -- that the issue with the GOP is that it is too conservative from a policy perspective -- as do a slim majority of political independents.

In 1949, more Republicans also said their party’s bigger issue was one of leadership, not policy, according to Gallup. Compared with that time, the number of Republicans singling out leadership concerns is now significantly higher, while the percentage saying the substance of policies as the larger concern is basically the same.

President Obama has a whopping 26-point advantage over congressional Republicans in the new Post-ABC poll when it comes to whom people trust to protect the middle class (58 to 32 percent). That certainly puts the pressure on the GOP to adjust, as does the well-documented lack of support among non-white and younger voters.

It’s a perception that appeared to hurt Republicans at the ballot box in 2012. According to the 2012 exit poll, a slim majority of voters said Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s policies, if he had won, would have favored the rich. By contrast, a plurality of voters said Obama’s policies generally favored the middle class.

But, there are divisions within the Republican Party about how to proceed. Fully 73 percent of conservative Republicans see the main issue as one of leadership and communication, a number that slides to 55 percent among moderate and liberal Republicans, 38 percent of whom see a need for a policy shift.

Political independents also divide along ideological lines, with a majority of conservatives seeing leadership as the bigger issue (56 to 36 percent). Moderate and liberal independents see policy as the larger problem for the GOP by about two-to-one, 61 to 32 percent.

Here’s the exact question wording, with only the preamble adjusted from Gallup’s 1949 question:

Q: There are two different points of view as to why the Republican Party has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. Which of these two views do you, yourself, think is more nearly right…

One group holds that the Republican Party is too conservative and needs a program concerned more directly with the welfare of the people, particularly those in the lower and middle income levels.

The other group says that the policies of the Republican Party are good--but the party needs a better leader to explain and win support for these policies.

The Washington Post-ABC News poll was conducted by telephone Thursday through Sunday among a random national sample of 1,002 adults. Results from the full survey have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Boehner's 'Plan B' derailed: House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) effort to pass a bill that would renew all the Bush tax cuts on income below $1 million was abandoned Thursday night, with support for the bill apparently insufficient.

Boehner put his political brand on the line with the gambit, and at least for now, it appears to have failed. The Post reports that four dozen GOP House members were either on the fence or opposed to the bill. The GOP could afford only 25 defections if Democrats were to vote in unison against the bill.

Democrats have criticized "Plan B" as a half-measure, while Boehner has pitched it as a way to avert tax increases even if there's not a deal on the "fiscal cliff."

A Booker-Lautenberg primary?: Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) entered the 2014 New Jersey Senate race on Thursday, and in the process, he opted not to wait for Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) to declare his own intentions.

It was a bold move, and apparently Lautenberg didn't like it.

Lautenberg's spokesman offered this terse statement Thursday afternoon, pointing to the fact that the state is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy: "This is not the time for political distractions, and the senator will address politics next year.”

Lautenberg, who would be 90 on Election Day 2014, is clearly a bit peeved that Booker had the gall to launch a campaign before he had declared his intentions; generally, would-be candidates will wait a little longer to avoid ruffling feathers and making it look like they forced an incumbent to retire.

We'll see whether it actually turns into a primary or not. The only poll we have on that race showed Booker way out in front of Lautenberg -- a finding that might have led Booker to be as bold as he was.

Fixbits:

Despite the failure of "Plan B," House Republicans did narrowly pass a bill that would shift defense cuts from sequestration to domestic programs.

Obama's approval rating is now up to 56 percent -- the highest it has been since October 2009.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who has a 'A' rating from the National Rifle Association, says he will support an assault weapons ban.

Ben Affleck says of a possible Senate campaign: "One never knows."

DCCC Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) says his party will pick up House seats in 2014.

Rob Collins will serve as executive director of the NRSC.

Must-reads:

"In N.C. gun shop, plenty of sales and worries after Newtown shooting" -- Jason Horowitz, Washington Post

"Gay rights activists voice doubts about Chuck Hagel as prospective defense secretary" -- Peter Wallsten and Scott Wilson, Washington Post

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Chris Cillizza | December 20, 2012