By David Hill - 11/09/05 12:00 AM EST
Behind closed doors, some Republican campaign operatives are grousing about the declining ratings of Republicans in Congress. But these same operatives see a silver lining around the dark clouds: The Democrats aren’t really doing much to exploit Republican woes.
So we’re still in the game. But it’s not really a viable, long-term strategy to count on the Democrats’ always being so docile and dumb. When they wake up, we’ll need a stronger GOP to withstand the Democrat charge.
That the Republican “brand” needs some refreshing is obvious from a new poll by The Washington Post and ABC News. The poll suggests that about 35 percent of Americans approve of “the Republicans in Congress,” 36 percent plan on voting for a Republican in the next congressional election and 37 trust the Republicans to “do a better job coping with the main problems the nation faces over the next few years.”
So our party base stands at 35 to 37 percent, lower than at any time since the 1994 election cycle when Republicans swept to historic victories. Essentially, the party has lost almost all of its support among independents and much of its moderate support.
Deeper into the Post/ABC polling results, we discover that the GOP has lost the most ground in two issue areas. The first of these trouble spots — Iraq and the war on terror — is not particularly surprising. With public patience flagging, everyone knows this is a political liability for Republicans.
It’s the second trouble spot — the economy — that merits more careful scrutiny. According to the poll’s time-series results, 45 percent of Americans said Republicans would do a better job handling the economy in December 2002. That year, 44 percent felt the Democrats would handle the economy better. In the latest poll, the parties’ fortunes are reversed. Now, 56 percent say the Democrats are better on the economy while just 34 percent choose the Republicans, 11 percentage points below the 2002 poll result.
The rising importance of a handful of key pocketbook issues goes a long way toward explaining Republicans’ fall from grace on the economy. High gasoline prices and costly healthcare are two trouble spots illuminated by the recent poll. On those two issues, only 26 percent and 29 percent, respectively, of Americans trust Republicans most. In short, on those two issues we don’t even hold on to our 35- to 37-percent base of core supporters.
Republican weakness on the economy couldn’t come at a worse time. Polls consistently show rising concern about economic issues. For example, last month’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of Americans showed that “job creation and economic growth” was considered the top issue the federal government should address. Twenty-one percent of adults cited economics, while just 17 percent chose the war in Iraq.
If you add the other economically sensitive issues in that poll (rebuilding areas hit by Katrina, 14 percent, and cost and supply of energy, 10 percent) to broader concerns about jobs and growth, almost a majority of Americans are demanding economic progress ahead of resolving Iraq and terror issues. Sagging measures of consumer confidence also reflect growing anxiety about the economy, angst that is hurting Republicans.
So how did the Republican Party, the party of commerce, get so far down in the polls on economic issues? Aside from the troublesome pocketbook issues already mentioned, the main culprit is a lagging job market. Too many Americans feel underemployed or that their current jobs are at risk. That just kills economic optimism about the future.
While prominent Republican Party figures were once boosters of job growth — recall Jack Kemp’s calls for “hope, growth and opportunity” — today’s Washington-based Republicans hew a more libertarian line. Free markets take precedence over jobs.
Perhaps, as we enter the major gubernatorial election cycle, it would be a good idea for job-oriented Republicans from outside the Beltway to become more the face and heart of our party.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.