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GOP plummets, Obamacare soars in shutdown standoff

Republicans hoped that Americans would take out their anger on both parties, or the more generic "Washington." Nope.
House Speaker John Boehner leaves his office for a meeting with President Obama at the White House, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013.
House Speaker John Boehner leaves his office for a meeting with President Obama at the White House, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013.

The Republican Party is not just losing the shutdown, it’s losing it in historic fashion.

The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC survey finds just 24% of Americans hold a positive opinion of Republicans–a record low for the modern party. Meanwhile, Barack Obama’s approval rating has bumped up slightly in the last month to 47%. Even worse for Republicans, Obama’s signature health care law –which triggered the shutdown in the first place–is now liked by a higher percentage of Americans than at any point this year.

Democratic pollster Peter Hart and Republican pollster Bill McInturff ran the survey. Here’s a breakdown of the findings and what they mean:

Republicans hemorrhaging support

The damage to the Republican brand from the shutdown is immediate and severe. Just 24% of Americans have a positive opinion of the Republican party in Thursday’s WSJ/NBC poll versus 53% who have a negative opinion, a 13 point swing since September. That’s even worse than the 28% favorable rating Gallup recorded on Wednesday, and like Gallup’s showing, it’s a new record for the pollster. Even fewer respondents–21%–have a positive view of the Tea Party, another new low.

In case there was any mystery what’s driving the numbers: Americans blame the GOP for the shutdown over President Obama by a 53-31 margin. Of those polled, 70% say Republicans are putting politics ahead of their country, versus just 27% who say they’re showing strong leadership in standing up for their beliefs.

Democrats, Obamacare gaining support

The silver lining Republicans spotted in some pre-shutdown polls was that Americans seemed poised to take their anger out on both parties, or the more generic “Washington.”

Nope. President Obama’s approval rating is up slightly in the WSJ/NBC poll to 47-48 versus 45-50 last month. Democrats now lead Republicans on a generic Congressional ballot 47-39, a five point bump in the same period.

But the number that’s truly apocalyptic for Republicans is respondents’ views of the Affordable Care Act. The law is actually gaining support in the latest poll: 38% of respondents now say the law is a good idea versus 43% who say it’s a bad idea, a major bump from the 31-44 margin it polled last month and its best result in over a year. The surge in support comes despite a glitch-filled rollout of the law’s exchanges that’s proving a publicity problem for the White House.

The entire animating principle behind Senator Ted Cruz’s pre-shutdown strategy was that a confrontation over funding the law would shine a spotlight on its weaknesses, leading Americans to rally to the GOP’s side. Instead it looks the GOP’s unpopularity is producing a rally effect in support of the ACA. It’s an utterly bonkers result that undercuts the most basic conservative assumptions about the shutdown.

“I will be the first to admit it’s not like every single American is in love with the bill,” Neera Tanden, president of the liberal Center for American Progress, told MSNBC after reviewing the latest numbers. “But Americans are practical and they believe that now that we have it as a law we should try to make it work.”

A predictable result

One critical piece of context for the latest numbers: the depth of the GOP’s lows may be a stunner, but the overall trend is 100% in line with predictions that Democratic pollsters and a number of Republicans have made for months.

Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, for example, has been leading an exhaustive project to analyze the Republican base through polls and focus groups in order to map out an optimal message for Democrats in 2014. When he published his first round of findings in July, he claimed that Republicans’ biggest weakness is not that their ideology is too extreme–they actually seemed to be in OK shape–but that they’re too obstructionist. As he put it:  “People are desperate for effective things to happen and the House is blocking everything.”  This issue produced the biggest split between the Tea Party and evangelical wings of the GOP versus its moderate and independent wings. Greenberg’s research found the first two groups were almost uniformly hostile to Obama’s agenda while the latter two were much more interested in compromise, suggesting the issue might be a potent wedge.

True to his analysis, the current crisis is dividing those poles of the party like never before, bothwithin Congress and among rank and file voters. The latest WSJ/NBC poll finds non-Tea Party Republicans have wildly divergent views of the shutdown: 83% of Tea Party respondents blame Democrats for the shutdown versus just 57% of non-Tea Party Republicans. And while only 29% of Tea Party respondents say Republicans are putting politics ahead of country, a majority  of non-Tea Party Republicans –53% — agree with that statement.

You can see early signs of this split on the state level as well. Senator Mike Lee, a top Cruzy ally, is tanking in popularity, according to a new Brigham Young University poll of ultra-red Utah voters. And the reason is exactly the same: among Tea Party Republicans, 90% say Lee shouldn’t back down on stopping Obamacare, while 51% of non-Tea Party Republicans say he should compromise even if it means funding the law. There’s evidence the shutdown isdepressing Republican Ken Cuccinelli’s support in the Virginia governor’s race as well even though he’s tried to distance himself from the affair.

No easy way out

This moderate revolt is a bit of a reversal from the norm–usually Republican divisions in the polls are chalked up to Tea Partiers angry that the GOP isn’t conservative enough. It’s Speaker Boehner’s fear of angering these base voters that’s driving his strategy. The latest polls suggest that in pacifying his most conservative voters, he’s enraged just about everyone else. Given Democrats’ refusal to offer any meaningful concessions, there’s no obvious path out of the current fight that won’t leave a major chunk of the party deeply upset. And polls like today’s are only likely to harden the White House’s position at the negotiating table.

“It’s a concern, but it’s not an easily fixed concern, because if they cave in to the president then they alienate their base, and it’s not like Democrats are suddenly going to love them,” John Feehey, a GOP strategist and former aide to Speaker Dennis Hastert, told MSNBC. “So they’ve got to be real careful on this thing.”

While the effects of the shutdown on government and the economy are felt by all sides, it’s no longer a question who’s “winning” the shutdown politically. The question now is how Republicans get out of it and how lasting the damage will be once they do.

–Zachary Roth contributed to this report.