The Republican Brand’s Recovery Tour — Sort Of

by Stuart Rothenberg September 17, 2014 · 11:19 AM EDT

There was a time, a little less than a year ago, when Democrats salivated at the thought of running against the GOP brand and demonizing Republican candidates by attacking them and their party for “shutting down the government.”

But the Republican brand has largely recovered from its low point in late October, and even former Virginia Republican Rep. Tom Davis might now have to revise and extend his one-time comment that if the Republican Party “were a dog food, they would take us off the shelf.”

The turnaround in the Republican Party brand — and changes in the brands of the Democratic Party and President Barack Obama — is another reason why Democrats find themselves on the defensive in this year’s elections.

Instead of trying to make the midterms a referendum on the government shutdown and the Republican Party, Democratic strategists are trying to discredit individual Republican nominees.

Of course, Democratic fundraising appeals still raise the possibility of another government shutdown (even though there is none) and paint Republicans as defending millionaires and billionaires. But the recovery of the GOP brand over the past year has altered the midterm conversation.

The newest NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey of 1,000 registered voters, conducted Sept. 3-7, asked respondents to rate their feelings toward a number of public figures and groups, including Obama, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.

Only 42 percent of those who responded felt positively toward Obama, while 46 percent felt negatively. That net -4 (subtracting his negative ratings from his positives) is about where the president has been for a while, including last October, right after the government shutdown (-4: 41 percent positive/45 percent negative).

But the president’s current image is below where he was right before his re-election in October of 2012 (+6: 49 percent positive/43 percent negative) and immediately before his first midterms, in October of 2010 (+5: 47 percent positive/42 percent negative).

That’s not entirely surprising, since his job approval is down and the gap between his image and his job approval has been closing recently.

The Democratic brand has remained relatively stable over the past few years, though the most recent survey shows slightly higher negative evaluations.

The Democratic Party had a 36 percent positive/42 percent negative image in the recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, a net of -6. That net is slightly worse than the March survey (-3: 35 percent positive/38 percent negative), the late October 2013 survey (-3: 37 percent positive/40 percent negative), the October 2012 survey (+2: 42 percent positive/40 percent negative) and the pre-2010 midterm survey (-2: 39 percent positive/41 percent negative).

The big news is that the Republican brand has improved dramatically from where it was right after the government shutdown.

The new poll found Republicans regarded positively by 31 percent of respondents and negatively by 41 percent. The net -10 is nothing to brag about, of course, and it is slightly worse than the Democratic Party’s image or the president’s. But the president’s negatives (46 percent) are higher than the Democratic Party’s (42 percent) or the GOP’s (41 percent).

The Republican Party’s net image was much worse (-18) in March of this year (27 percent positive/45 percent negative) and a mind-boggling -31 in the October 25-28, 2013 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey (22 percent positive/53 percent negative), conducted right after the government shutdown.

The GOP’s image is now close to where it was immediately before the 2012 presidential election (-7: 36 percent favorable/43 percent unfavorable) and before the 2010 midterm balloting (-7: 34 percent positive/41 percent negative).

The party’s positive image is up 9 points since October, and its negative image is down 12 points, when many voters blamed the party for the government shutdown.

What have Republicans done to improve the party’s image so dramatically in the past 10 months? Not much.

Basically, they have stopped doing really stupid things and allowed the public to focus on the president and the bad news that seems to arrive on TV each day. They are not threatening another shutdown before the elections, chose not to risk a GOP bloodbath by fighting over an immigration bill before the election, and have stopped attacking each other.

With Obama’s personal negatives up from 42 percent in late October of 2010, shortly before the midterms when Democrats lost 63 House seats, to 46 percent now, and his personal favorable down to 42 percent now, from 47 percent in 2010, Democratic strategists have every reason to worry about Obama’s sinking standing.

Party images don’t automatically translate into specific numbers of seats changing party hands. The Republican Party’s image going into the 2012 elections was very close to where it was two years earlier, but one year was a disaster for Democrats and the other was very disappointing for Republicans.

But the drop in Obama’s image and in the Democratic Party’s image between October 2012 and September 2014 (and even between 2010 and 2014) certainly contributes to the sense that this is a dangerous time for Democratic candidates running in competitive contests. And the improvement in the GOP brand has removed an opportunity Democrats were once hoping to use to establish their own national narrative about the midterms.