The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The implosion of the GOP brand, in one chart

Republicans successfully converted the 2010 elections into a referendum on President Obama, the economy, and liberal overreach. As a result, they won big. Now Democrats are hoping to turn the 2014 elections into a referendum on the GOP brand and the destructive excesses of Tea Party governance.

The GOP just might help Democrats succeed.

Polling released this week by the Washington Post and ABC News found the GOP’s unfavorability ratings among Americans at an all-time high of 63 percent.

But a closer look at the numbers reveals that this has been accompanied by a massive collapse in 2013 of the GOP brand among core constituencies important in midterm elections: Independents, women, and seniors. The crack Post polling team has produced a new chart demonstrating that in the last year — since just before the 2012 election — there’s been a truly astonishing spike in the GOP’s unfavorable ratings among these core groups:

The interactive chart (run the cursor on the bars for numbers) shows the GOP’s unfavorable ratings have jumped 19 points among seniors, to 65 percent; 17 points among independents, to 67 percent; and 10 points among women, to 63 percent. Those are all key constituencies in midterm elections.

Observers believe that over the long term, the GOP will have to do a better job winning over college educated whites, who are an increasingly important constituency, along with young voters and minorities, in the Democratic coalition of the future. (Ron Brownstein has dubbed these groups the “coalition of the ascendant,” arguing they are increasingly important in statewide races, not just national ones.)

Among white collar whites, the GOP’s unfavorability rating has shot up by a startling 21 points, to 70 percent. Among college educated women — who may be more critical to the Dem coalition than college educated men — the spike in GOP unfavorability has been somewhat more dramatic than among women overall, jumping 15 points, to 74 percent. If this trend continues, it could fuel future Dem gains among women.

Democrats believe their chances of winning key contested Senate races in states won by Mitt Romney — such as Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Montana — hinge on their ability to drive up their numbers among independents and women. This view is shared by nonpartisan observers, such as Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

“When you’re a Democrat running in these red states, you have got to run up the score among your strong constituencies,” Duffy tells me. “For Democrats right now, it’s women and independents.”

Meanwhile, seniors tend to be a larger percentage of the vote in midterms than in presidential years, so any Dem inroads into traditional GOP dominance among them could matter. “Seniors tend to be very reliable voters in midterm elections,” Duffy says. “They turn out in great numbers. In the past few elections, they have favored Republicans. If Republicans start losing seniors in large numbers, they have a very big problem.”

Is it possible the 2014 elections will really be about the GOP brand, given that Democrats control the White House? This turns on a nuance of recent electoral history. In 2010, Dems tried to make the elections about the dangers of a return to Republican rule, arguing, famously, that voters should not give the keys back to the guys who drove the car into the ditch. That didn’t work, because voters didn’t see 2010 Republicans through the prism of the Bush years. Obama had been in charge for two years and had failed to turn around the economy, which remained in horrific shape. Voters in 2010 didn’t know what post-Bush GOP-rule meant.

But now, Democrats believe, voters do know what post-Bush GOP rule means — they have grasped the governing implications of a GOP that has been radicalized by the Obama presidency — and these core groups are recoiling. “The chances that the election could be about the GOP brand are over 50 percent,” Duffy tells me.

Republicans in key Senate races are all running against the President, which is understandable, given his unpopularity in red states. But Dem operatives think record-high GOP unpopularity may dilute the impact of a message that’s All About Obama. One thing Dems are watching for is this: The possibility that GOP candidates’ vehement opposition to Obama could itself become associated with the GOP’s more extreme elements, particularly if GOP numbers among core groups like the above hold.

News orgs and nonpartisan observers agree that GOP hopes of taking back the Senate are dimming, partly because Republicans need to run the table in Senate races and partly because a House Republican could well be the GOP nominee in multiple races. The House, of course, is a heavier lift: Observers believe Dems must win these core groups by unrealistically large margins to take back the lower chamber.

There is still plenty of time for the current political atmosphere to change, of course. But the possibility of more GOP crises and chaos governing in 2014 — which could reinforce current public impressions of the GOP — remains very real. “The Republican brand is already so damaged,” Duffy says. “What should be a pretty successful cycle for them is deteriorating by the week.”