Democratic pollster: Obama obsession may be GOP achilles’ heel in 2014

Carlene Cahill of Petersburg, Va., holds up a set of signs she made during a Tea Party Patriots' "Road To Repeal Rally" on a rainy day March 24, 2012,  in...
Carlene Cahill of Petersburg, Va., holds up a set of signs she made during a Tea Party Patriots' "Road To Repeal Rally" on a rainy day March 24, 2012, in...
Allison Shelley/Getty Images

As veteran Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg sees it, President Obama’s re-election is like General George Meade’s victory at Gettysburg. The enemy is on the run, sure, but just as General Robert E. Lee lived to fight another day, they can still regroup if the victors don’t pursue the remaining force with their full arsenal.

“Democrats have been on the defensive and acting like Republicans are in control,” Greenberg told reporters on Tuesday. “Our goal is to give Democrats ammunition.”

Greenberg’s prescription is based on a new polling project by his firm, Democracy Corps, that’s designed to gauge the GOP’s current standing and identify its weak spots. On Tuesday, he shared his findings at a media breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

The major advantage Democrats have over the GOP at the moment is relative unity against a party that’s isolated from the broader public and divided internally on its path forward. The stat that leapt out to Greenberg from his latest round of polling, a survey of 950 2012 and 841 likely 2014 voters conducted in July, is that the GOP’s view of its own party is far more negative than Democrats’ self-perception. Only 63% of Republicans had “warm” feelings toward the GOP on a scale of 1-100 versus 79% of Democrats toward the Democratic Party.

The difference reflects tensions within the GOP, which Greenberg broke into four groups: evangelical (30%), religiously observant (17%), Tea Party (22%), and moderate (25%). What holds the groups together is a shared skepticism of government regulation and spending. But that might not be enough alone to keep moderates and independents attached to the party.

On policy, the biggest divide between the groups is on social issues. Eighty-two percent of evangelicals are strongly unfavorable toward gay marriage versus 37% of moderates and 29% of independents. On abortion, 64% of evangelicals and 58% of Tea Partiers are “strongly favorable” towards pro-life groups versus just 17% of independents. But there are other pressure points as well. Seventy-one percent of the Tea Party members and 56% of evangelicals are strongly favorable to the National Rifle Association versus 34% of moderates and 34% of independents. And on climate change, an area where the GOP is usually viewed as fairly united, the gap is surprisingly stark: 23% of Tea Party and 34% of evangelicals believe action needs to be taken to address global warming, versus a whopping 62% of moderates and 73% of independents.

The results suggest Democrats should be able to confidently push hard on issues like gun control, gay rights, and women’s reproductive health–safe in the knowledge that Republicans will be too captured by their most conservative base groups to offer moderate alternatives that might attract votes outside their party.

Dems advised to run against gridlock - and run hard

But that’s not where the GOP’s true weak spot lies, according to Greenberg. Instead, the party’s biggest vulnerability isn’t on a single policy debate, but on a general approach to governing.

A June Democracy Corps survey of competitive Congressional seats found that 64% of voters want their member to “try and work with President Obama to address our country’s problems” versus 30% who want them to “try and stop President Obama from advancing his agenda for the country.” But within the House GOP the latter philosophy has been by far the dominant one. Even routine legislation like the Farm Bill has become difficult to pass as members rebel against almost any bipartisan compromise. Asked about their historic failure to pass major policy legislation this year, Speaker John Boehner told CBS News recently that Congress “ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal” instead.

Greenberg says his latest polling of the GOP explain Republicans’ behavior. Tea Party and evangelicals are characterized by a much more intense dislike of Obama than other groups–85% of evangelicals and 93% of Tea Partiers “strongly disapprove” of the president’s performance versus just 54% of Republican moderates and 40% of independents. The gap is even bigger when asked about how they feel about Obama on a personal level – 79% of evangelicals and 89% of Tea Partiers are strongly unfavorable toward the president versus just 44% of moderate sand 32% of independents. As Greenberg puts it, Obama hatred “isolates” the GOP’s base more than any one issue, making it impossible for House Republicans to reach across the aisle in ways that would appeal to independents.

Democrats’ best shot at gaining the upper hand after the disastrous 2010 midterm, therefore, is to run against gridlock and run hard.

“People are desperate for effective things to happen and the House is blocking everything,” he said. “Pragmatic solutions are very popular.”

According to Democracy Corps’ polling, voters are more receptive to the notion that Republicans are unwilling to govern than the notion they’re too extreme ideologically. But if Democrats fail to keep up the attack, they will give the GOP more room to muddy the differences between the two parties, fueling the perception that generic “Washington” is to blame. That could allow the party to avoid consequences for obstruction and buy more time, a la Lee, to rebuild their depleted brand heading into 2016.

“Go on the offensive,” Greenberg said. “This is a party in trouble and I don’t think their entrenchment in the states and House is real.”