The Public Policy

Republicans Struggle to Get Off the Mat

Will conservatives warm up to the GOP?

By 9.25.09

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In Alice McDermott's touching, depressing novel, Charming Billy, a 1998 National Book Award winner, the Irish-American narrator, makes a parenthetical comment on her father's "legion of cousins" in New York, regarding whom "it had seemed to me that there were more alcoholics among them than there were Republicans, or even redheads."

I laughed out loud when I first read that passage since my family was one of the few Republican households in St. Louis who were both Irish and Catholic (and German and French) in the 1950s and 1960s. My grandfather "converted" to the GOP during the New Deal, which was probably a lot easier for him since he married a St. Louis German-American woman after moving to town from Cincinnati. Irish-German matches are very common in the Midwest.

Unlike the Irish, the Germans were loyal Republicans given their historic opposition to slavery and support for the Union and Abraham Lincoln. If you look at an electoral map of Missouri for the 1860 presidential election, only two counties-St. Louis and Gasconade on the Missouri River-voted for Lincoln. These were strong areas of German-American culture. The rest of the state, pro-slavery and Scots-Irish, voted solidly Democratic.

After the elections of 2006 and 2008, one could be forgiven for thinking there were more alcoholics in America than there are Republicans. Even Republicans had second thoughts about being Republican given…I will spare you, gentle reader, the litany of un-Republican things perpetrated by Republicans over the last eight years.

It is a wonder that more Republicans haven't become alcoholics.

Nevertheless, the summer of 2009, bringing with it an extremely negative popular reaction to a host of new Democratic governmental programs, spending, taxes, debt and general messing around with the economy and American society, seems to have revived the fortunes of the GOP if only modestly.

The Gallup organization now reports that "The Republican Party image-quite tattered in the first few months after the 2009 elections-has seen some recent improvement." Don't fire off the carbide cannon yet, but things seem to be looking up just a bit.

Forty percent of Americans now hold a favorable view of the Republicans, which is up from 34 percent in May. They still hold the Democrats in higher esteem, with 51 percent viewing them favorably.

The GOP had reached bottom in two consecutive polls in November 2008 and May 2009 with that 34 percent favorability rating.

Gallup identifies the recent lift as coming from "rank-and-file Republicans" whose favorability rating of their own party Chernobyled this spring, dropping to 63 percent. It is now back up above 80 percent.

Democrats' favorability rating for their party is at 91 percent.

Technical note: Gallup's polling data is derived from its annual Governance Survey, conducted August 31 through September 2, based on telephone interviews with 1,026 adults, 18 or older, which yields a 95 percent confidence that the "maximum margin of sampling error" is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Democrats still are viewed more favorably than Republicans by independents but the percentage is now 40 percent, down from 47 percent going back to November 2008.

Of particular interest to readers of this site is that more liberals hold a favorable view of Democrats than do conservatives relative to the GOP. Eighty percent of liberals think highly of the party of Jefferson and Jackson, but only 55 percent of conservatives think well of the heirs of Lincoln. "And while more than half of several demographic groups view the Democrats favorably, the Republicans receive this level of support from only Republicans and conservatives," says Gallup.

Republican numbers rival the Democrats in the South, among men and upper-income Americans. Among the young, women, the middle-aged, Easterners, Midwesterners, and those earning under $75,000, the Democrats do much better, i.e., in the range of 53-58 percent.

"Still, the Republicans have a fair distance to go to reach parity with the Democrats on this measure -- something not achieved since late 2005 (although they came close right after the Republican National Convention in September 2008)," notes Gallup. "Restoring its image even among Republicans, as well as among conservatives, could be a place for the Republican Party to start." Nota Bene.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.