The media specialize in spotting political blunders, miscues, and lost battles by Republicans. And reporters and commentators have found a lot of them in the past year. The fight over the debt limit increase, the refusal to reach agreement with President Obama on a “grand bargain” to cut the deficit, the bumbling over extending the payroll tax holiday, the controversy over the contraception mandate—all of them setbacks harmful to Republicans. Or so we’ve been told.
The problem is there’s either little or no evidence to back up these conclusions or there’s evidence to the contrary. Rather than suffer as a party, Republicans appear to have largely held their own or even gained ground as these supposed misfortunes have piled up since last summer.
There are three ways in which polls measure a party’s status: favorability, party identification, and the generic congressional ballot. While Republicans haven’t fared well in every poll, they’ve done far better than a string of highly visible embarrassments (in the press’s view) would lead you to believe.
Get ready for a blizzard of poll numbers, starting with favorability. In Fox News surveys, Republicans were viewed favorably by 41 percent of adults last April, with 53 percent unfavorable. This month, it was 39 percent favorable, 52 percent unfavorable. Not much of a change.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found virtually no change at all. It was 32 percent positive for Republicans in March 2012 and 31 percent positive in April 2011. In a Pew poll, there was a dip, from 42 percent favorable, 51 percent unfavorable a year ago, to 36 percent favorable, 56 percent unfavorable now. But that was the worst of it for Republicans.
On party ID, Fox News asks this question: “When you think about politics, do you think of yourself as a Democrat or Republican?” In March 2011, 37 percent said they were Republicans. In March 2012, it was the same—37 percent.
The congressional ballot question asks voters whether they’d vote for the Republican or the Democratic candidate if the election in their congressional district were held now. Gallup found in February that Republicans had gained, tying Democrats at 47 percent. “These results,” Gallup president Frank Newport said, “are slightly more even than two previous measures from December and August of last year, which showed Democratic advantages of 4 and 7 percentage points.”
Pollster Scott Rasmussen measures the congressional vote weekly. Republicans led Democrats 45 percent to 39 percent in early March 2011. A year later, it’s Republicans 44 percent, Democrats 41 percent—a slight improvement by Democrats.
There’s not much polling on the individual cases and how they might have affected Republicans—for instance, the Social Security tax holiday. But one downside for Republicans, perhaps a temporary one, has emerged—their presidential race. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey asked if, based on “what you have seen, read, or heard,” your opinion of the GOP had changed. Among all adults, 40 percent said they’d become less favorable. Even 23 percent of Republican primary voters said so.
Social issues are a pet peeve of the media, but only when Republicans advance a conservative view. More often than not, Republicans are deemed politically unwise for opposing abortion, gay rights, and the Obama administration’s mandate that health insurance policies provide contraceptives and morning-after pills for free.
With religious institutions, except for churches, subject to the mandate, the Catholic church objected, as did evangelical Protestants, conservatives, and Republicans. They asked for conscience exemptions, allowing Catholic hospitals, for instance, to retain the freedom they enjoy today by opting out of an obligation that violates the teachings of their faith.
Not the entire press, but at least an influential segment of the mainstream media, jumped to the conclusion that Republicans are losing the support of women by opposing the mandate. Democrats insist Republicans want to ban contraception altogether and are waging “a war on women”—a pair of absurd claims.
Polls vindicated Republicans. A New York Times/CBS survey found that by 57 percent to 36 percent, Americans favor an exemption for “religiously affiliated employers.” As the issue continued to fester week after week, Obama’s job approval declined in several national polls.
Rising gasoline prices no doubt played a role. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll released last week, almost two-thirds of Americans disapproved of the president’s handling of the energy issue. At the same time, the contraception mandate appeared to affect Obama’s standing as well.
“The election is still about the economy, not social issues,” Rasmussen told me. “However, to the degree that the health care/mandate issue comes into play, it helps the GOP at the margins. The administration miscalculated by taking on the Catholic church.”
It’s not just the media that regard social issues as risky for Republicans. So does much of the broader political community of elected officials, government workers, lobbyists, and consultants, including many Republicans.
“We’re focused on doing this the right way,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for House speaker John Boehner, “and that means working through the committee process. We haven’t announced what that next step will be, but I’d look for committee action.” On an abortion-related issue, Boehner has yet to approve a House committee hearing on Planned Parenthood.
When its poll showed gas prices are driving down Obama’s approval, the Washington Post rushed to his defense with a story headlined: “Voters blame president for gas prices, experts say not so fast.” So should we expect a story under the headline of “Voters blame Republicans for balking at deficit plan, insiders say not so fast” or something similar? No.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.