The disappearing Democratic brand advantage

Until recently, voters were more favorable to Democrats than the GOP. Now that advantage is eroding

Published April 1, 2010 1:02PM (EDT)

Back in October, I noted that the GOP's brand (as measured by its favorable/unfavorable ratings) was in much worse shape than any opposition party at that stage in the previous four midterm election cycles. That stigma, I suggested, might limit Republican gains in the November midterm elections relative to a 1994-style scenario.

Things have changed, however. In a column for Roll Call, Stuart Rothenberg flags a new NBC/WSJ poll suggesting that the Democratic brand has lost most of its advantage relative to the GOP.

Unfortunately for Democrats, their own brand has fallen like a rock.

In April, almost a year ago, the Hart/McInturff poll found 45 percent of Americans with a positive view of the Democratic Party and 34 percent with a negative view. In the most recent Hart/McInturff survey, the Democratic Party’s positives have sunk to 37 percent and its negatives have risen to 43 percent. Yes, those numbers are slightly better than the GOP’s (31 percent positive/43 percent negative), but not enough to help Democrats in the fall.

Here's how the net positive numbers (pecent positive minus percent negative) for Democrats and Republicans have changed over the course of Obama's presidency:

Nbc netpos

Perceptions of the GOP have only improved a bit, but the negative press and opposition party criticism faced by Democrats have apparently taken their toll. Since my original post in October, the difference in net positive numbers between the parties has closed from 27 points to 6 -- a decline that coincides with the most intense stage of the health care reform debate.

As a result of this change, the difference between the major party brands no longer appears to be unusual for this stage in the midterm election cycle (polls in the chart were the closest available):


I interpret this shift as reflecting the underlying fundamentals of the election cycle, which favors the GOP (a Republican takeover of the House is a realistic possibility). The question now is whether the Republicans will continue to gain ground. In 1994, the GOP opened up a major lead in perceptions of the party relative to Democrats between June and October: 94pos

I still don't expect a 1994-style landslide in November, but it seems clear that the Democratic brand advantage that might have helped prevent such an outcome has evaporated.

By Brendan Nyhan

Brendan Nyhan is a political scientist currently serving as a RWJ Scholar in Health Policy Research at the University of Michigan.

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2010 Elections Democratic Party Republican Party