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Republicans Vs. Democrats on the Issues

by Ruy Teixeira

As Bush’s image continues to erode, as evidenced by his sliding approval ratings and sharp increase in negative personal evaluations, his party’s image is also not doing so well. Exhibit “A” is the very wide range of issues on which the public now prefers Democrats over Republicans, mostly by double digit margins.

Here are data from the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll on which party the public thinks would do a better job on various issues: protecting the environment (+39 points in favor of the Democrats); dealing with gas prices (+28); dealing with health care (+26); dealing with Social Security (+22); reducing the federal deficit (+19); dealing with education (+19); dealing with energy policy (+16); dealing with the economy (+14); controlling government spending (+12); dealing with taxes (+10); protecting America’s interests on trade issues (+10); dealing with foreign policy (+9); dealing with abortion (+8); dealing with immigration; promoting ethics in government (+5); and dealing with Iraq (+3).

On four of these issues–taxes, foreign policy, Iraq and protecting America’s interests on trade issues–this is the very first time the Democrats have run an advantage on that issue in the NBC News poll. On many others, the Democrats’ advantages are at or near the top of those ever recorded by the poll.

The October 19-23 Democracy Corps poll takes a slightly different approach to testing Democrats against Republicans, asking respondents which party they associate more with a series of positive terms. Again, Democrats are preferred over Republicans on a wide range of these terms: for people, rather than big general interests (+31); for the middle class (+27); cares about people (+26); putting the public interest first (+24); reform and change (+18); on your side (+11); improving America (+11); new ideas for addressing the country’s problems (+11); opportunity (+8); for families (+7); America respected in the world (+7); trustworthy (+6); shares your values (+5); and think long-term, not just short-term (+2). On one other characteristic–creating prosperity–the parties are tied.

These are certainly impressive lists. Add to this the gaudy generic Congressional contest margins Democrats have been running in many recent polls (in the recent Newsweek poll, the Democrats were up by an amazing 17 points, including a nearly 2:1 margin among independents) and the situation would appear to be very dire for the GOP.

However, there are a number of mitigating factors that make big GOP losses in 2006 far from certain.

1. The Republicans have lost ground on all issues but do retain some advantages that must be reckoned with. In the NBC News poll, for example, the GOP is still ahead on ensuring a strong national defense (+21), promoting strong moral values (+17) and dealing with the war on terrorism (+9). (The magnitude of the latter lead must be troubling for Republicans however-- before the 2002 election, their lead on the terrorism issue was literally four times as large and Bush’s approval rating on the issue was 67 percent, not the 39 percent he’s getting today.)

2. The Republicans also retain some important leads on party associations like know what they stand for (+14) and security and keeping people safe (+13). The Republican lead on the former characteristic is underscored by a NBC News finding that only 11 percent think the Democrats have a “very clear message and vision for the future”, 7 points less than believe that about the Republicans and 45 percent believe the Democrats don’t have a clear message and vision for the future, 9 points more than think that about the Republicans.

3. Generic Congressional contest leads that are not very predictive, if predictive at all, this far out from an election. After all, the Democrats were actually ahead of the Republicans by 7 points in the generic Congressional contest in November, 1993, one year before the very, very good Republican year of 1994.

4. There are structural reasons why Democrats may have difficulties translating their substantial issue advantages and Republicans’ political woes into big gains in November, 2006, ranging from the concentration of Democratic votes in House districts that are lopsidedly Democratic (a problem that has been exacerbated by GOP-led redistricting efforts) to a well-oiled GOP political apparatus with an extensive bag of tricks designed to insulate the party from the consequences of its unpopular policies. All these advantages are usefully summarized by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in their New York Times magazine piece last Sunday (which should whet your appetite for reading their excellent new book, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy.)

5. Finally, while Democrats have gained a number of substantial advantages, some important ones are still quite small and may hold them back from generating the support they need to overcome the considerable obstacles just mentioned. For example, their advantage on Iraq in the NBC News poll was only 3 points. And on a number of key characteristic in the DCorps poll, their advantages were still quite modest: opportunity (8 points), for families (7 points), shares your values (5 points) and creating prosperity (tie).

Then there are the party favorability and thermometer ratings which continue to show only slight Democratic advantages, indicating the Democrats’ overall image has not improved to match their considerable gains in issue areas.

In short, voters are still much surer of what they don’t like (Republican policies and Bush’s job as president) than of what they might like (Democratic policies and leadership). It’s up to Democrats to clarify that situation, starting with, finally, convincing the American public they know what they stand for.