Support for Republicans Falls to Record Low
May 1, 2008

Only 27% of voters have positive views of the Republican Party, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, the lowest level for either party in the survey's nearly two-decade history.

Yet the party's probable presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, continues to run nearly even with Democratic rivals Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton. His standing so far makes for a more competitive race for the White House than would be expected for Republicans, who face an electorate that overwhelmingly believes the country is headed in the wrong direction under President Bush.

"The nearly unprecedented negative mood of the country is presenting significant challenges this year for other Republican candidates," said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, who conducted the poll with Democrat Peter Hart.

President Bush reached new lows in his eighth and final year, with 27% approving of his overall job performance, and 21% his handling of the weakened economy. An unprecedented 73% of voters believe the country is on the wrong track; only 15% say it is going in the right direction.

The numbers show an electorate more disenchanted than in the fall of 1992, the previous low in the Journal poll -- sentiments that led to the ouster of President Bush's father.

A majority of voters now say they want Democrats to re-capture the White House again, a finding that makes Sen. McCain's position remarkable: He's in a statistical dead-heat against either Democrat in the poll. Sen. Obama, the Democratic front-runner, leads Sen. McCain 46% to 43%, and Sen. Clinton has a 45% to 44% edge over the Republican. A big reason for the closeness: More voters said they could identify with Sen. McCain's "background" and "values" than with those of either of the Democratic contenders.

Both point spreads are within the poll's 3.1-percentage-point margin of error. The survey of 1,006 registered voters was conducted April 25-28.

The poll also shows that the prolonged battling between Sens. Obama and Clinton could make it difficult for the ultimate nominee to unite the party. Both candidates have been bloodied, though Sen. Obama, who previously has enjoyed much higher personal ratings than Sen. Clinton, has sustained more damage. The Illinois senator has struggled over the past month with a series of controversies, including his association with an outspoken Chicago pastor and comments about small-town voters that have been portrayed as elitist.

Representatives for the two Democrats declined to comment.

Voters, by 44% to 32%, hold positive feelings toward the Democratic Party. By a 15-point margin, 49% to 34%, voters say they want Democrats to keep control of Congress. Swing voters -- the one-third of the electorate that will decide the elections -- are even more hostile toward the Republican Party than voters overall, and identify by more than 2-to-1 with Democrats.

Sen. McCain's current political viability contrasts with that of his party. It underscores the extent to which his personality and image, rather than issues such as the war and the economy, could shape this presidential election.

House Republican Leader John Boehner on Wednesday convened party colleagues behind closed doors for a PowerPoint presentation entitled, "Why We Can Win." Central to the Ohio congressman's case was his argument that other Republicans on the ballot would benefit from Sen. McCain's appeal among independents and moderate Democrats.

But party strategists say other Republicans can't count on riding Sen. McCain's coattails. As the poll indicates, Sen. McCain's status with voters rests largely on personal traits and on his long-cultivated reputation for independence from his party, suggesting an appeal that isn't easily transferred.

Sen. McCain's appeal could fade, the poll suggests. As Sen. McCain has reached out to suspicious conservatives to unite his party behind his candidacy, and become more partisan as its presumptive nominee, his popularity among voters already has eroded some. In two Journal/NBC polls in March, the share of voters with positive views was 20 points greater than for those with negative views. That margin was halved to 10 points in the current poll, with 40% positive and 30% negative.

Also, 43% say they have "major concerns" that Sen. McCain "will be too closely aligned with the Bush agenda." His vulnerability to the Bush link is one that Democrats already are exploiting, with near-daily attacks from the national party suggesting a McCain administration would amount to a third Bush term.

Just 16% cited Sen. McCain's age as a major concern. The Arizona senator will be 72 years old by election day.

Potential Defections

The potential defections are evident as the Democrats campaign. Republican Robert Williams, 70, said he will vote in Tuesday's Indiana Democratic primary, and for the Democratic nominee in November. "I don't like the way he acts," he said of Sen. McCain, "and I don't want to be in Iraq any longer."

"I think he's a good man," said 63-year-old Jack Henricks of Sen. McCain, "but I don't agree with the Republican policies on business." So the manufacturing-company owner came to an Obama campaign rally, and plans to vote for the Democrat.

The disparity between Sen. McCain's and his party's popularity is one that is rare in national politics, leaving political strategists searching for explanations.

According to the Journal/NBC pollsters, most telling is this finding: By 54% to 35%, voters say they identify with Sen. McCain's "background and set of values," which the pollsters describe as traits such as honor, trustworthiness and patriotism.

"It's not about the war. It's not about the economy. It is pure and simple about values," Mr. Hart said.

On the same question, voters split 46% to 46% on Sen. Clinton. For Sen. Obama, 45% identify with his values and 46% do not. Sen. McCain gets higher percentages than either Democrat with nearly all key voter subgroups, including men, seniors, independents, suburbanites, small-town voters and rural voters.

"What it comes down to is that John McCain's values are values that the voters seem to feel very comfortable with," said Mr. Hart, the Democrat, adding that his edge "has less to do with his stands on the issues."

On the issues, he is at odds with many voters. Just over a third say they agree with his stay-the-course approach to the Iraq war, while 54% agree with Sen. Obama's call to draw down all troops within 16 months.

Another plus for Sen. McCain, who weeks ago dispatched his last Republican rival for the nomination: "He's been able to consolidate the Republican base relatively easily," Mr. Hart said.

That apparent ease is counter to earlier predictions that Mr. McCain would face a divided Republican Party. Instead, it is the Democratic nominee who could face a fractured party.

The nominating fight took a nasty turn in the final days before the Pennsylvania primary, which Sen. Clinton won handily on April 22. The intraparty attacks have continued in advance of Tuesday's Indiana and North Carolina primaries.

'In the poll, by 47% to 40% Democratic voters say Sen. Obama is more likely to be able to defeat the Republican.

The poll was conducted as Sen. Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., reignited debate over his racially charged beliefs with a series of public appearances, which culminated Tuesday in Sen. Obama's public repudiation of him. But other problems -- including Sen. Obama's gaffe about the bitterness of disaffected workers and his Pennsylvania loss -- have taken a toll, the poll shows.

"He has come crashing down to earth," Mr. Newhouse said.

In a Journal/NBC poll in early March, voters by a 23-point margin had a positive view of the Illinois senator, 51% to 28%. That is sliced this month to a nine-point margin, 46% to 37%.

Among important subgroups of voters, his negative ratings are the highest they have ever been among independents, small-town and rural voters, Midwesterners, seniors, suburban women and blue-collar workers.

"Why did he wait so long to come out and defend himself strong against the reverend?" asked Katherine Williams, 69, of Beech Grove, Ind. The Democratic voter said she is undecided about how she'll vote Tuesday, but said that the Wright issue weighs heavily.

Net Negative

Sen. Clinton's net negative rating among all voters -- 44% rate her negatively and 42% positively -- is improved from a poll in late March. "It's nothing to write home about, but at least it's an improvement," Mr. Newhouse said. She also improved her standing with independents.

More than a third of Democrats agree the long fight has been bad for the party, and Mr. Newhouse says it helps explain Sen. McCain's current strength. Yet the further bad news for Republicans, he said, is that the contest has added many new Democratic voters: "It is pulling the Democratic Party apart but also adding more voters to the Democratic ranks."Spirited Contest'

"It seems clear that this spirited contest with the Democrats has left the party divided in many ways," Mr. Hart said. "Perhaps most ominous," he added, is the poll's findings that four in 10 Obama voters don't think Sen. Clinton has the values they seek in a president, while five in 10 Clinton voters say the same about Sen. Obama.

If Sen. Clinton loses the nomination, "there's a chance that more of her voters will go to McCain or not vote," Mr. Newhouse said. In the poll, 30% of Clinton voters say they wouldn't vote for Sen. Obama and 22% of his supporters say they won't vote for Sen. Clinton.

"The longer this goes, the more difficult it is for Democrats to come together, simply because the passions of their supporters are intensified as we go through this," said Mr. Newhouse, the Republican. "Hillary's voters strongly believe in her and believe she is the candidate to beat the Republicans, and Obama's voters feel the same way about him."

Original Text