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Hate your candidates this year? You're not alone

A number of high-profile contests this year feature not one, but two candidates who are unpopular with voters. Is this the new normal?
North Carolina Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis pauses while participating in debate with Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C. in Research Triangle Park, N.C., on Oct. 7, 2014. (Photo by Gerry Broome/Pool/AP)
North Carolina Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis pauses while participating in debate with Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C. in Research Triangle Park, N.C., on Oct. 7, 2014.

What do you get when you combine a dysfunctional Congress, a divided American public, and several hundred million dollars worth of negative ads? A whole bunch of unpopular candidates, that's what. 

In top-tier races around the country, voters are struggling to decide between politicians that they fell lukewarm about at best and outright contemptuous of at worst. A number of high-profile contests feature not one, but two candidates who polls show are more disliked than liked by the state’s electorate.

“I don’t know how many candidates are even right side up in the polls,” Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Report, told msnbc. “They all seem to be underwater when it comes to favorable ratings.” 

A typical example is North Carolina’s Senate race, where Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan is holding onto a small lead over Republican Thom Tillis. Polls consistently indicate more voters have a negative opinion than a positive one of each. In an NBC/NewsMarist survey this month, just 42% of voters expressed a favorable opinion of Hagan versus 48% who had a negative one while Tillis scored even worse with only 36% favorable and 47% unfavorable. Both sides are running intensely negative campaigns, with Hagan determined to tie Tillis to the state’s unpopular legislature and Tillis trying just as hard to tie Hagan to Obama’s unpopular performance.   

In Kentucky, a SurveyUSA poll this week showed Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Alison Lundergran Grimes locked in a tie with respondents more likely to dislike each candidate than not. A number of polls in Arkansas over the last month have found both Democratic Senator Mark Pryor and Republican challenger Tom Cotton either underwater in favorability or close to it. Even in Michigan, where Democratic Senate candidate Gary Peters is running away with his race against Republican Terri Lynn Land, success hasn't translated into popularity. Peters barely breaks even at a weak 34% favorable versus 30% unfavorable rating in the latest EPIC-MRA poll against the extremely disliked Land, who has a 30-49 rating.

RELATED: New hope for Alison Lundergan Grimes?

It’s not just federal elections where voters are souring on their candidates, either. Several high-profile governors’ contests feature unloved incumbents spending big dollars to drag their opponents down to their level. The most prominent example is Florida, where unpopular Republican Governor Rick Scott is deadlocked with unpopular former Republican governor and current Democratic candidate Charlie Crist. A similar dynamic is at play in Illinois, where Democratic Governor Pat Quinn is in a race to the bottom against Republican Bruce Rauner, and Connecticut, where Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy is in a nasty fight against Republican Tom Foley. 

Nationally, a Washington Post/ABC News poll this month found a record low 39% of votes say they have a favorable view of the Democratic party and an even lower 33% say the same of the GOP. An NBC News/Marist poll this month found that voter interest in the midterm elections is – amazingly -- decreasing as November 4th draws closer amid widespread disillusionment with both sides.

Welcome to American politics, circa 2014.  

The new normal 

Elections are always a choice between the lesser of two evils to some degree, but political analysts say the current loathing for candidates of all stripes is exceptional in its intensity. 

It’s also predictable. Experts see 2014 as the culmination of a number of long term trends, including growing partisanship, looser campaign finance restrictions, and increased gridlock in Washington. None of these factors are likely to let up any time soon, suggesting this year’s race to the bottom may be the new normal.

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Marist pollster Lee Miringoff attributed the negative environment to the “underlying polarization” of the electorate. As Republicans grow more uniformly conservative and Democratic candidates become more uniformly liberal, voters find it easier to pick a camp and stick with it, leaving few true undecided voters up for grabs.

Since no one expects a divided Congress to get anything done anytime soon, neither party has much of a positive agenda to sell this year. Instead, both parties are relying heavily on bashing the other side and scaring their own supporters to rile up partisans. For Republicans, this means a steady stream of anti-Obama messaging paired with dire warnings about ISIS and Ebola. For Democrats, this means painting their opponents as unhinged right-wing extremists. 

“The campaigns are trying to motivate their voters not on a record of accomplishment but on ‘you don’t really want them, do you?’” Miringoff said.

This strategy is turbocharged by an unprecedented flood of midterm campaign spending, much of it from outside groups unlocked by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and accompanying challenges to campaign finance laws. Already, super PACs, nonprofits, and party committees have spent over $577 million on ads, the overwhelmingly majority of which have been negative. The huge pile of cash means that partisan operatives can start tearing down their opponents with TV attacks a year out from an election and never let up.

“It’s become a very standard part of campaign strategy to drive your opponent’s negatives up and I think it’s happening earlier and earlier,” Duffy told msnbc. 

In North Carolina, which is on track to become the most expensive Senate race in history, outside groups have already spent $26 million attacking Tillis personally and $13 million doing the same to Hagan. By the time Election Day rolls around, most voters are ready to rip their TV off the wall.

“You start with an unpopular Congress and add months and months of attack ads,” Stuart Rothenberg, editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, told msnbc. “No wonder so many candidates have high negatives. In fact, it's surprising that anyone in a heavily contested race has decent favorable/unfavorable ratings.”

Looking for other options

As voters struggle to pick between the candidate they hate and the candidate they fear, an increasing number are looking at more unconventional options. This year features an unusually high number of credible independent candidates, including Greg Orman in the Kansas’ Senate race and Larry Pressler in South Dakota’s, and third party spoilers like Sean Haugh in North Carolina who are outperforming their fundraising. 

RELATED: GOP candidates accelerate party's right turn on immigration

Perhaps because they flew under radar for most of the election season and thus weren’t subjected to attack ads, candidates like Orman and Pressler enjoy exceptionally positive net favorability ratings in recent polls. 46% of voters had a favorable opinion of Orman in the an NBC News/Marist poll this month versus 26% who had an unfavorable one. Republican firm Harper Polling found Pressler enjoyed a 55% favorable rating versus 38% negative.

The good news for the less popular candidates is that being liked doesn’t necessarily translate into support at the ballot box. Orman’s opponent, Republican Senator Pat Roberts, has led several recent polls despite lackluster approval ratings. Pressler, who is in a three-way race with Republican Mike Rounds and Democrat Rick Weiland, has yet to lead a poll. 

This has been true in some conventional partisan races as well. In New Hampshire, Jeanne Shaheen consistently rates as at least moderately popular in polls while her Republican opponent Scott Brown is usually underwater, but he’s managed to keep the race a tossup by focusing on national issues. 

Still, it may not be a coincidence that two of the brightest stars of the cycle, Republican Congressman Cory Gardner in Colorado and Joni Ernst in Iowa, have devoted more airtime and more political capital to building up a positive image. Gardner, who leads all recent polls in his race against incumbent Senator Mark Udall, has presented himself as an upbeat and optimistic problem solver.  Ernst rose to prominence touting her farmer roots and military background and has boosted her favorability in recent months with another slate of positive ads. 

RELATED: Iowa's Joni Ernst didn't disclose income from rental property

The difference may be style over substance – Gardner is a conventional conservative on policy and Ernst’s signature ads are mostly generic anti-Washington attacks – and both candidates have lobbed plenty of mud at their opponents along the way. Still, the fact that they’ve made a race out of two contests Democrats were favored in to start the cycle suggests they may be onto something. Voters have seen so many negative ads at this point that it's possible anything else is a welcome relief.