A Divided Party Cannot Stand. Or Can It?

Amy Walter
September 27, 2017

Eight years after the rise of the Tea Party, the GOP remains engaged in intra-party warfare. Capturing all levers of political power in Washington has done nothing to temper the deep-seeded tension between the forces of the traditional “establishment” wing of the party and its populist/libertarian infused “anti-establishment” wing. There are plenty of reasons for why this feud continues. A big part of the blame falls at the feet of outside interest groups and professional agitators who use chaos and indignation to raise money and line their own pockets. Meanwhile, the president, normally a unifying figure for the party, has only helped to sow these long-standing divisions with his attacks on GOP leadership. The question now is if these rifts are going to rob Republicans of the momentum and energy they need for what is shaping up to be a difficult mid-term election.

Recent polling has shown that the in-fighting and name-checking from President Trump is taking a toll on perceptions of the GOP and its leadership, especially among its own members.

Back in February, according to polling from NBC/Wall Street Journal, Mitch McConnell was viewed relatively positively by the 71 percent of GOPers who knew who he was. Among Republicans, 28 percent viewed him positively, while 13 percent viewed him negatively for a +15 rating overall. Seven months later, with health care flopping and the president attacking him personally, McConnell has seen his negatives jump 12 points to 25 percent and his positive ratings drop 9 points for an overall score of -8. Among those identified in the poll as “core Trump supporters,” McConnell’s favorable ratings went from +13 in February to -12 in September.

Ryan, who has not had to endure the same sort of Trump treatment, remains above water with GOP voters, though his ratings have dropped as well, from +49 in February to +23 in September.

A new CNN/SSRS poll found similar results in Republicans' assesmessment of their party leaders. Just 39 percent of Republicans said they approved of how GOP leaders in Congress are handling their jobs. Among those who say they approve of the job Trump is doing, just 31 percent approve of GOP leaders, with 63 percent who disapprove. Just 46 percent of Republicans believe that GOP leaders in Congress are “taking the party in the right direction.”

Meanwhile, despite all the hand-wringing by party strategists and elites in DC about the state of the Democratic party, its voters aren’t nearly as frustrated with their party as GOPers are with theirs. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi started 2017 with a rather anemic +8 favorable/unfavorable rating among Democrats, according to NBC/Wall Street Journal polling. In September, her approval among Democrats had jumped 15 points to 48 percent and her disapproval dropped by 8 points, giving her a +31 score. Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer also saw his ratings rise among Democrats from +15 in February (29/14), to +25 in September (37/12).

A narrow majority of Democrats – 51 percent – approve of the way Democratic leaders in Congress are handling their jobs and 53 percent of Democrats say Democratic leaders are taking the party in the right direction.

The take-away here: being in charge is hard. Being in the opposition, where the party can at least unite around “no” is a lot easier.

So, will this deepening Republican frustration with Congress and its leaders hurt GOP prospects in the midterms? One way to answer this question is to look at voter enthusiasm. The more interested a voter says he/she is in voting, the more likely they will actually turn out. Already, we’ve seen an enthusiasm gap in perceptions of the president. By a 2-1 margin, more Americans say they “strongly” disapprove of the job the president is doing than “strongly” approve. There are also early signs that this enthusiasm gap is translating to intent to vote in the midterms.

CNN asks the question, “how enthusiastic would you say you are about voting for Congress?” In the last two mid-term elections, Republicans were significantly more enthusiastic about voting than Democrats. On the eve of the 2010 election, for example, 54 percent of Republicans said they were “extremely” or “very” interested in voting compared to just 34 percent of Democrats. Republicans, of course, went on to pick up 63 House seats and six Senate seats.

At this point, Democrats have a 10-point “enthusiasm” advantage over Republicans – 44 percent to 34 percent. What’s more, this gap is considerably larger than the one Republicans had at this point in 2009. Back in late October of 2009, Republicans had a one-point enthusiasm advantage.


Democrats now have the “enthusiasm” advantage over Republicans

Yearly Breakdown



The other test of party strength in a mid-term is the so-called generic ballot test where voters are asked if they’d like to see Republicans or Democrats in control of Congress, or if they will support a Democrat or Republican in the upcoming congressional election. According to the Huffington Post pollster average, Democrats have a seven point lead on the question (41 percent to 34 percent). That’s a healthy lead, but not quite as significant as the lead Democrats had going into 2006 election. According to RealClearPolitics, Democrats had an 11.5 percent lead right before the election where they picked up 32 seats and control of Congress. Given the structural advantages in the GOP's favor: gerrymandered congressional lines and geographic self-sorting (i.e. Democrats choosing to live in urban/inner suburban areas), plus the increase in party-line, straight-ticket voting, Democrats likely need a double-digit lead on the generic ballot going into Election Day. Moreover, enthusiasm and generic ballot advantages are not created equal. Turning out a bunch of energized Democrats in Democratic-leaning districts isn’t of much help to Democrats’ chances at winning the House. Republicans staying home in heavily GOP seats isn’t much of a threat to their majority.

The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll dug into the congressional preference question and found that while Democrats have an overall advantage (+6), the advantage isn’t distributed equally. When the pollsters looked at the generic ballot  responses by congressional district, they found that the Republicans had a 14 point lead in GOP-held seats and Democrats had a 29 point lead in Democratic-held seats. That’s not particularly remarkable or surprising. However, the 14 point advantage held by Republicans in their own seats is basically in line with the advantage they held in the 2010 (+15) and 2014 (+18) midterm elections. Meanwhile, Democrats 29 point advantage is 12 points higher than it was in those Democratic seats in 2010 and 6 points higher that it was in 2012. In other words, it looks as if Democrats may “waste” their enthusiasm advantage in districts they already hold.

To be sure, this is a national sample and as such misses the nuances of individual districts. Moreover, the congressional ballot question is more useful–and predictive–the closer we get to the election. Even so, it is a reminder of how the structural advantages held by Republicans could help them weather a very grim political climate and their own political infighting.