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On CNN’s State of the Union Sept. 7, the political roundtable never strayed far from talk of the upcoming midterm elections. By most accounts, Republicans stand a good chance to retake the Senate. But Democratic strategist Maria Cardona argued that Republicans aren’t actually in the best shape.
"Right now we're talking about Democrats perhaps keeping the Senate," Cardona said. "Five months ago, Republicans were swearing up and down that they were going to take over the Senate."
"So, let's also keep in mind that in all of these districts and states the Republican Party has the worst reputation in American polling of any political party in history."
That’s a big claim, so we wanted to check where the current iteration of the Republican Party stands in relation to American polling history.
Cardona told us that she took her talking point "from an aggregate of polls from the last year where polling for Congress in general has been at historic lows."
"In most of those polls, the Republican Party is polling at much lower levels than the Democratic Party," Cardona said.
"Polling at much lower levels" in Cardona’s case refers to the "favorable/not favorable" rating of Republicans. There are other ways to ask how poll respondents how they feel about parties -- a poll paid for by NBC and Wall Street Journal, for instance, asks about positive and negative impressions. But we think the favorable/not favorable measure is widely understood and accepted.
And by that measure, the Republican Party recently did hit a record low. In the October 2013 Gallup poll, conducted during the government shutdown, 28 percent of respondents said they had a favorable view of Republicans while 62 percent said they had an unfavorable view. The results were both a record low for a favorability rating and a record high for an unfavorability rating since Gallup began asking the question in 1992, among Democrats or Republicans.
Likewise, the Pew Research Center’s lowest recorded favorability and highest recorded unfavorability belong to the Republican Party, in two separate 2013 polls. Pew’s data, like Gallup’s, goes back to 1992. CNN reported a record low for both Republican and Democratic favorability (32 and 43 percent, respectively) in October 2013, although we could only find CNN data going back to 2006.
For context, the same Gallup poll that recorded record unfavorability for Republicans showed 43 percent favorability for Democrats against 49 percent unfavorability -- better, but still bad.
It's important to note that the polls have shifted in the past year, however, and Republicans have bounced back from their low watermark.
Gallup’s April 2014 poll had Republican favorability at 34 percent against 59 percent unfavorability. The Democratic Party also polled slightly better than it did in October, with 44 percent favorability and 50 percent unfavorability.
Pew’s most recent poll also showed a similar improvement for Republicans, with Democratic favorability and unfavorability holding steady. As far as we can tell, CNN hasn’t asked the favorability question since October.
Polling history is recent history
"In history," in our minds, implies a period of time longer than just the last two decades. But looking at political parties’ reputations further back is difficult.
Scientific polling -- meaning polls with random sampling -- started in earnest in the mid 1930s, when George Gallup founded the American Institute of Public Opinion. Gallup’s innovation was to apply statistical methods from the social sciences to the more informal surveys that had existed long prior, and which often gave unreliable results. Polling then, though, was nowhere near as big as it is today.
"From the mid 1930s to the early 1970s, there were only a few pollsters in the business releasing public polls," said Karlyn Bowman, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Those polls used mostly in-person sampling, which isn’t completely comparable to the telephone sampling done today, Bowman added.
Bowman told us that there’s no easy analogue from those early polls to the "favorable/unfavorable" question asked today, but noted that the post-depression period, the mid 1970s, and the early 1980s were all marked by a low public opinion of the political parties and government in general.
Arguing that the Democrats stand a chance in the upcoming midterm elections, Cardona said, "The Republican Party has the worst reputation in American polling of any political party in history."
According to Gallup, CNN, and Pew, that was case roughly a year ago -- but now now. In late 2013, Gallup had Republican favorability at 28 percent, and Republican unfavorability at 62 percent. Both of those are records for either major party.
There are two major caveats, though. First, polls only started asking the "favorable/unfavorable" question about political parties in 1992, and there’s no good analogue before then; looking back to 1992 doesn’t quite warrant "in history," as Cardona phrased her claim.
Second, the Republican Party has bounced back from their low watermark in the most recent polls. Cardona's claim is partially accurate but leaves out important details. We rate it Half True.
Maria Cardona on State of the Union, Sept. 7, 2014
Email interview with Maria Cardona, Sept. 8, 2014
Email interview with Karlyn Bowman, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Sept. 8-9, 2014
Email interview with Jonathan Ladd, associate professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy and Government at Georgetown University, Sept. 10, 2014
Interview with Richard Benedetto, professor of journalism at American University
American Enterprise Institute, "The Tea Party Movement: the Latest," June 2014
PBS, "History of Opinion Polling," June 14, 2002
Roper Center, "Fundamentals of Polling-Sampling," 2014
CNN, "Congress, tea party hit all-time low in CNN polling," Oct. 1, 2013
Pew Research Center, "2014 Political Polarization and Typology Survey," 2014
Gallup Politics, "Republican Party Favorability Sinks to Record Low," Oct. 9, 2013
Gallup Politics, "Democratic Party Still Seen More Favorably Than GOP," May 16, 2014
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