“Political brands are important,” I wrote more than a year and a half ago in a lede that was much less interesting than the entire column . Now, though, I am wondering whether political party brands are so different from soap brands or over-the-counter medicine brands, which loyal consumers often stick with no matter what the competition is selling.
The entire subject of party branding is an important one given the prominence of Donald Trump and the inevitable analysis that he is diminishing the Republican brand.
But before you jump to any conclusions, it would be wise to consider the data. The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey , conducted Oct. 25-29, showed the GOP brand in the toilet — and doing far worse than the Democrats’ brand.
Only 29 percent of adults had a positive view of the Republican Party, while a remarkable 44 percent had a negative view. That gave the GOP a net image of -15. The Democratic Party’s image was 41 percent positive and 39 percent negative, for a net image of +2.
Just for comparison purposes, I looked up the two parties’ images in November of 2007 — a year after George W. Bush’s second midterm election trouncing and a year before Barack Obama won the White House.
The Republican brand was 32 percent positive/44 negative back then, for a net image of -12. The Democratic Party image at the same time was 39 percent positive/35 percent negative, for a net image of +4. In other words, the net images of the two parties were quite similar then to what they are now.
But here is where things get interesting.
Democrats had a 9-point advantage on the congressional generic ballot back in November 2007, 46 percent to 37 percent, which wouldn’t be surprising given the two parties’ brands. And a year later they won the White House rather comfortably.
But last month’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed something very different. In spite of the GOP’s badly damaged brand and the Democrats’ much better image, the two parties were even in the generic congressional ballot, tied at 45 percent.
And when the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked a generic presidential ballot — “What is your preference for the outcome of the 2016 presidential election — that a Democrat be elected president or that a Republican be elected president?” — the generic Republican had a statistically insignificant, but not irrelevant, 44 percent to 43 percent advantage over the generic Democrat.
How could a party with such a damaged brand run even with the opposition party, which had a much better image?
The answer is the same one that I found more than a year and a half ago, and which is worth remembering: The GOP brand is so bad because Republicans have such a low opinion of their party, not because of its problems with independents.
While 81 percent of Democrats responded that they had a positive view of their own party in the late October 2015 survey, only 65 percent of Republicans had a positive view of their party. And while only 5 percent of Democrats had a negative view of the Democratic Party, a considerable three times that of Republicans, 15 percent, had a negative view of the GOP.
And among independents, whom you probably assumed were the decisive group? More independents did have a more positive view of the Democratic Party than the GOP (24 percent to 15 percent), but neither number was very good. And just as important, independents had almost identical negative views of the two parties, with 38 percent having a negative view of the Democratic Party and 40 percent having a negative view of the GOP.
Just as I reported in that March 2014 column, the Republican brand is now dramatically worse than the Democratic brand because Republicans have a much more negative view of their party than Democrats have of theirs.
But when the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked about generic vote intentions, Americans returned to their respective partisan corners. Partisans were able to explain away, overlook or otherwise deal with this cognitive dissonance, allowing them to remain loyal to their parties’ nominees.
A consistent 88 percent of Democrats said they would vote for a Democratic-controlled Congress and the Democratic presidential nominee. Among Republicans, 92 percent responded that they would vote for a Republican-controlled Congress and 90 percent said that they would vote for the GOP nominee for president.
So does this mean that nominating someone in the mold of Donald Trump would not be a problem for the GOP? Obviously not.
The actual nominees and their campaigns are crucial in motivating turnout on both sides and defining a party’s personality and agenda, and if Republicans were to nominate someone like Trump, GOP defections to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would rise, as would the number of the Republican voters who would sit out the election. Eventually, a presidential nominee becomes his or her party’s brand.
But a mainstream Republican presidential nominee wouldn’t necessarily suffer the same defections and base turnout problems next November, even if this party’s overall brand were worse than the Democratic Party’s image. (Obviously, an ongoing civil war in the GOP, especially one in which Trump was a combatant, would be a heavy burden for any Republican nominee.)
So, it is important to understand why the Republican brand is where it is today, and it is equally important to note that the party image question isn’t always strongly correlated with vote intention — at least at this point in the election cycle. Keep an eye on future poll numbers to see if and when this changes.
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