I have now read several articles and watched a press conference held by Charlie Cook. For those who follow politics, you know that Cook is one of the few well-known and established political analysts in the country. Cook was bullish on GOP chances in 2010 and 2012 (minus the Presidency) and the 2012 results splashed cold water on expectations. Now Cook seems to be adopting a “Wait and see attitude” compared to his prior stances.
But one stance Cook seems to have put his foot down on believing is that the GOP brand is damaged. To prove this he cites numerous polls that show the Democratic Party has higher favorable ratings than the GOP consistently. But this is shallow proof that the GOP brand is actually damaged.
Consider that in the 2010 election polls showed Republicans by leads in the generic ballot test but the Democratic Party had a higher favorable rating. Also, early polling has shown the GOP generic candidate with a national lead yet the Democratic Party maintains higher favorable ratings.
There are other factors to consider. In 2014, the battle for both the House and Senate will be fought on conservative turf. The GOP’s best takeover chances are in the Senate which include West Virginia, South Dakota, Montana, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska and North Carolina. All of these states voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. In the House the GOP’s 17 seat majority will be hard to overcome. Of the entire House GOP Caucus, only 4% of 233 members sit in districts Obama won in 2012. Almost half the Caucus comes from the South, a region that has solidly rejected the Democratic brand since the 90’s.
Certainly, brand damage could hurt the GOP in 2016. But we have seen how national factors outweighed the GOP brand problem in 2010. That year Republicans over-performed among groups that consistently favored the Democratic Party. In 2012 we saw how the profile and campaign of a sitting President can overcome his weakness in approval ratings and a stagnant economy. Republicans could find a candidate in 2016 that exacerbates their struggles or one that accentuates their strengths.
Long and short-term aside, the battle for 2014 seems unlikely to be impacted based on the favorable ratings of the parties. Beyond the basic math and political environments of the individual states and districts control of Congress will rest on, voters views of the President will weigh heavily on their decisions.
As of today, the President is around 45%-46% approval in various sites averages of polling. In Republicans states his numbers are far worse. In 2010, in the states the GOP won, polls showed the President deeply unpopular. In other words, voters view of the President greatly impact their decisions in midterm elections.
We know voters can pull the lever for a candidate for any number of reasons. In 2010 (I keep going back to this election), the largest number of voters said they voted the way they did because of the national economy and they wanted more done by the President. In 2012, the majority of voters said they voted for the President and his party because they believed he “shared their values.” In 2010, a sizable minority of voters pulled the lever for Republicans to voice disapproval with the President. Among Republicans, but also among Independents, this phenomenon was notable.
So while Cook can say brand damage will hurt the GOP the odds of it doing so in 2014 are minimal. Now a little more about 2016. In 2004, after George Bush won reelection against a liberal opponent, many Democrats thought they needed a new moderate Bill Clinton. Instead, both Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton ran from the left and in the end Obama helped remake the Democratic coalition in just two elections. He also further solidified the GOP coalition in 2010.
Republicans have a strong crop of potential candidates for 2016, each with strengths and weaknesses. For example New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has the potential to remake the GOP coalition with newer, moderate voters at the expense of Southern conservatives. His image as a moderate on social issues could help the GOP brand on social issues. Senator Marco Rubio could appeal to minorities and give the party a more gentle face on immigration. Senator Rand Paul could help the GOP connect with younger, libertarian voters less predisposed to a strong national security and social conservatism. Lastly, a Midwestern conservative such as Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin could appeal to pragmatic, moderate voters in a way that could help the party.
This of course is all hypothetical. The 2016 election is a long ways away. Nominating the right candidate still does matter a lot. The brand of a party could mean a lot or a little in the President election. But in the 2014 election I definitely have to disagree with Cook and say it will not matter.