Saturday, August 4, 2007

Public Opinion on the Parties

As promised, I've got more from the recent Pew data release. Examining how citizens feel about the political parties can be a fairly important endeavor not just for understanding how things stand now, but also to get a sense of which party is presently favored heading into the 2008 elections.

The figure below presents the percentage of the public that has a favorable rating of both the Demcoratic and Republican parties. The series runs from July 1992 through the most recent Pew survey (July 2007).

The percentage of the public that has a favorable view of the Republican Party has steadily dropped from a high of 63% in April, 2003 to the 39% that presently rate the party favorably. In fact, the 39% for July, 2007 is the lowest rating for the entire period. The previous low for Republicans was 44% in January, 1999 (this was when the party was suffering backlash from the impeachment of President Clinton). While the Democratic Party is doing a bit better than Republicans with 51% presently holding a favorable impression, they are also near their own low point for the period. The previous low mark for the Democratic Party's favorability ratings was 47% just a year ago (July, 2006). Thus, even though Democrats are doing a bit better than Republicans in the public's eye, neither party is particularly popular with the public when compared with views of the past 15 years.

It is also informative to get a sense of stong feelings toward the parties. To do this, we can plot the percentage of the public that has very favorable or very unfavorable feelings toward the parties. First, let's take a look at those who feel very unfavorable.

Generally, over the past 15 years, only a small share of the public (between one-in-four and one-in-five) has had a strong distaste for one or both of the parties. However, in the most recent polling, those taken since the 2004 election, at least one-in-three have had a very unfavorable impression of one party or the other. Republicans are clearly more unpopular among those with strong feelings. In the July, 2007 survey, just over one in every five adults (22%) had a very unfavorable view of the Republican Party. The very unfavorable ratings for the Republican Party have been hovering in the 20-25% range ever since President Bush's second inauguration in January, 2005.

Finally, it is instructive to look at the percent of the public that has a very favorable view of each party. Those with very favorable views are somewhat less common than those with very unfavorable views. In the July, 2007 poll, only 7% reported a very favorable view of the Republican Party and 13% had a very favorable view of Democrats. The 7% for Republicans matches, again, their previous low point during this series, which occurred in February, 1999. The Decline has been fairly steady from the 18% that held a very favorable view of the Republican Party in December, 2002. The percentage of Americans feeling very favorable toward the Democratic Party has remained fairly stable around 15% for most of this series.

So, what to make of this. Well, these findings largely confirm what Pew has told us in an earlier report--American public opinion appears to be swinging back in the direction of the Democratic Party. This obviously helped Democrats capture Congress in 2006, and many political onlookers think that it is likely to propel them into the White House in 2008. Of course, it is still far too early to make predictions on the presidential campaign, but things do appear to be better for the Democrats right now than they are for Republicans. But my use of the word "better" is important. Neither party is doing particularly well with the public. The percent having very favorable feelings toward both parties is down, and the percent having very unfavorable views is up. Democrats may be doing better, but neither party is particularly popular with a significant share of the public. Does this mean that the public is ready for a Bloomberg run? What I'd really like to see is what percentage of the public has unfavorable (or very unfavorable) views toward both parties (the information released by Pew doesn't give that information). This would be the potential constituency for a Bloomberg candidacy.

Another interesting thing that these poll results lead one to consider is how the Democratic-controlled congress will act when they return from the August recess. Do they force a showdown with the president over Iraq, the budget, funding for infrastructure, etc.? At this point, the president has little to lose. His approval ratings probably can't go much lower and he isn't running for reelection (nor does he seem particularly attached to any of the Republicans who are running). Democrats, on the other hand, risk driving up their unfavorable ratings and diminishing the advantage they currently enjoy over Republicans. According to Pew, the public is relatively split on how far Republicans should go in challenging Bush's policies in Iraq. 29% think they are going too far, 38% say they are not going far enough, and 24% say they are about right in how far they have gone. So, do they mount a serious challenge to Bush (one that involves war funding), and risk the backlash that could result? Do they continue to bring up votes for timelines and blame Republicans and Bush for obstructing their efforts to end the war? I have to say that, strategically, based on these poll numbers, the Democrats have some choices to make and it will be interesting to see what they do.

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