WASHINGTON -- Americans blame everyone involved in Washington’s mess for the government shutdown, but they blame Republicans the most.
While that doesn’t mean the GOP is in for a rough time in the next election, it does mean the party has dug itself into a deep hole this fall. That could make it harder for its candidates in swing states and districts to gain the kind of good will that’s crucial to congressional elections, where personalities and images matter.
Pick the poll, and Republicans’ numbers are dismal – and a key reason the party has softened its demands this week on government spending and the debt limit. Most notably, leaders no longer are talking about defunding or delaying the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, as a condition for reopening the government.
They see the unmistakable trend: Generally, only 1 in 4 people in surveys taken since parts of the government closed Oct. 1 hold positive views of the party.
“It’s a pox-on-all-their-houses phenomenon, but the pox is greater on the Republicans,” said Jay Campbell, senior vice president at Hart Research Associates, a polling firm.
Democrats are hardly prospering. Gallup found that 43 percent saw the party favorably, down 4 points from a month ago. “The Democratic Party also has a public image problem, although not on the same elephantine scale as that of the Republican Party,” Gallup said.
Republican troubles stem from three big sources.
– One is the age-old notion that a president traditionally has a public relations advantage during crises. President Barack Obama holds a news conference or makes a speech and it instantly becomes the top Washington news. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, doesn’t have that kind of pull.
“Any president has a way of appearing as an authoritative presence,” said Janine Parry, the director of the nonpartisan Arkansas Poll at the University of Arkansas. “Congress is largely an abstraction.”
– Republicans also are damaged by their internal struggles. Their leaders have been speaking with one voice, but the rank and file has shown cracks.
Last week, a group of about 25 center-right Republican members of the House of Representatives, mostly from Northeastern and Midwestern states, tried to end the standoff by signaling that they’d vote to reopen the government with no strings attached. They maintained, and most agreed, that such a measure would get roughly 100 votes from the House Republicans’ 232-member caucus.
Republican leaders wouldn’t take the risk and allow such a vote. Instead, some of the renegades got publicity for their ploy, suggesting that die-hard conservatives had seized control of the party, hardly a strategy for wooing swing voters.
– A third Republican problem is the hardening of party lines. Republicans are conservatives. Democrats are liberals. It’s not exactly that cut and dried; there are exceptions on both sides. But in the public arena, it’s generally viewed as an all-or-nothing choice, a product largely of the emergence of social media and cable television. Political debates, at least as they’re heard on TV, are often little more than echo chambers for one side or the other.
“One thing we do see changing is that more hard-wired into people’s thinking is a starker distrust of the other side,” said Michael Dimock, the director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
The 2012 presidential results revealed how that polarized image was hurting the GOP, more so than the Democrats. Republican officials launched a spirited effort earlier this year to be more inclusive.
Polls find that the party’s image began to slide in the mid-2000s, driven by then-President George W. Bush’s stumbles in helping victims of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and voter disenchantment with the Iraq War. Meanwhile, conservatives, bothered by party leaders’ reluctance to make big spending cuts, helped create the tea party movement in 2009. The grass-roots effort helped elect 87 Republican House freshmen in 2010 as the party won control of the House.
At the moment, the Republican majority appears safe, and the party is still given a decent shot at winning control of the Senate next year. The GOP is expected to need a net gain of six seats.
“The elections are still pretty far away,” said Parry, who polls in one of the nation’s most closely watched U.S. Senate races, pitting Arkansas’ incumbent Democrat, Mark Pryor, against Republican tea party favorite Rep. Tom Cotton.
In the House, most congressional districts were redrawn after the 2010 census, and that wound up protecting and strengthening incumbents. Nearly half the House’s Republicans – 109 – were elected for the first time in 2010 or 2012. So most have strong tea party credentials.
The problem that they – as well as Pryor, Cotton and others who now hold office – face is whether the growing anger people now feel will linger. Since the shutdown began, Congress’ Gallup approval rating has tumbled to 11 percent. President Barack Obama is now viewed favorably by 49 percent, and unfavorably by the same percentage. In mid-September, the split was 53-43 in Obama’s favor.
History does suggest that when people sour on government, “usually one side gets a disproportionate share of blame,” said Nathan Gonzales, the deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, which studies congressional races.
At this point, it’s advantage Democrats, but there’s no guarantee that will last. A month ago the big issue was Syria, and it was Obama who looked indecisive. Last spring, Democrats were reeling from revelations about the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservative groups.
Next month, who knows?
“We just have to wait and see,” Gonzales said.