October 31, 2007

A Year Ahead, Republicans Face Tough Political Terrain

Section 3: Views of the Issues and the Parties

For the most part, the issues that rate as most important to voters have changed little since the end of the 2004 presidential campaign. The economy, health care, Iraq and education currently rate as top issues for voters. Those issues ranked near the top of voter concerns in October 2004, and in a Pew survey conducted in June of this year. Terrorism and jobs, which also ranked in the top tier in 2004, have declined a bit in importance. Still, about seven-in-ten say each of these issues will be very important in their vote (69% terrorism, 71% jobs).

There have been other notable changes in the voters’ issues agenda. Energy has increased sharply as a concern; currently, 65% of voters say energy will be very important to their vote, up from 54% in October 2004.

By contrast, there has been a sharp decline in the proportion of voters citing social issues — gay marriage, abortion and stem cell research — as very important. Just 22% say gay marriage will be very important to their vote, down from 32% in October 2004. About four-in-ten (39%) say abortion will be very important, compared with 47% three years ago. Stem cell research also has declined in importance by eight points since 2004 (from 43% to 35%).

Abortion Seen as Less Important

About four-in-ten Republicans (42%) cite abortion as very important, down from 52% in October 2004. Independents also are significantly less likely to rate abortion as a major issue than in 2004 (44% then, 33% today). Democratic opinions are mostly unchanged; as a consequence, the gap between Democrats and Republicans over the importance of abortion that was evident in 2004 has now disappeared.

Other social issues — gay marriage and stem cell research — have decreased in importance across the political spectrum. Only about a quarter of Republicans (27%) and roughly one-in-five Democrats (19%) and independents (17%) say gay marriage will be very important in their vote; there have been substantial declines in the proportions all three groups rating gay marriage as a major voting issue.

Similarly, stem cell research has lost salience among voters. About four-in-ten Democrats (43%) rate this issue as very important, down from 52% in October 2004. There have been comparable declines in the percentages of independents (10 points) and Republicans (nine points) saying that stem cell research will matter a great deal in their voting decisions.

Partisan Gaps Persist

As was the case in October 2004, terrorism rates at the top of Republican voters’ agenda, while Democrats continue to view domestic issues — specifically health care — as most important. Domestic issues — including the economy and health care — also top the list of concerns among independent voters.

Iraq also remains a dominant issue. Eight-in-ten Democrats and more than seven-in-ten independents (73%) and Republicans (71%) say Iraq will be very important in their vote. Slightly more Democrats rate Iraq as very important than did so in October 2004 (76% then, 80% today), while views among independents and Republicans are mostly unchanged.

The largest partisan gaps continue to be in opinions over the importance of the environment and domestic issues. As in 2004, twice as many Democrats as Republicans say the environment will be very important to their vote (72% vs. 36%). Far more Democrats than Republicans say that health care (29-point difference) and Social Security (27 points) will be very important in their voting decisions.

Republicans continue to rate terrorism more highly as a voting issue than do Democrats (77% vs. 66%). And immigration, which was not included as an issue in October 2004, rates fairly high on the agenda of Republican voters (65% very important); among Democrats, it ranks near the bottom, at 50%, ahead of only abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage.

There also are sizable differences within each party over the salience of several issues. Two-thirds of conservative and moderate Democrats (67%) say moral values will be very important to their vote, compared with just 42% of liberal Democrats. Conservative and moderate Democrats also are much more likely than liberal Democrats to view terrorism and Social Security as very important issues. For liberal Democrats, the environment rates as a leading priority; currently, the environment ranks behind only health care among the concerns of liberal Democrats (89% vs. 86%). By comparison, far fewer conservative and moderate Democrats (66%) say the environment will be very important to their vote.

Among Republicans, the largest ideological differences are over the importance of abortion: twice as many conservative Republicans as moderate and liberal Republicans say abortion will be very important to their vote (50% vs. 25%). For their part, moderate and liberal Republicans are much more likely to rate the environment as a major voting issue than are conservative Republicans (46% vs. 30%).

Party Images

The Democratic Party continues to hold large advantages over the Republicans in specific traits related to empathy, the ability to bring about needed change, managerial competence and honesty. Despite the public’s low opinion of the Democrat-led Congress, the party’s image in these dimensions is not appreciably different than it was in October 2006, prior to the midterm elections in which Democrats won control of the House and Senate.

Notably, the Democratic Party’s image advantage in these areas — particularly in management of the government and honesty — is much greater than it was during the 2004 presidential campaign. Currently, 44% say the Democratic Party can better manage the federal government while 32% choose the Republican Party. That is little changed from a year ago, but in July 2004 the Democratic Party had only a three-point lead as the party better able to manage the federal government.

Similarly, the Democratic Party’s advantage as the party viewed as governing “in a more honest and ethical way” increased from just three points in July 2004 to 14 points in October 2006; the Democrats’ lead in this area remains substantial (40%-26%).

The Democratic Party also is generally viewed as selecting better candidates for office. Currently, 41% say that the Democratic Party selects better political candidates compared with 32% who say the Republican Party. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Republicans frequently held modest advantages in this area. In the current survey, there is a sizable gender gap in views about which party selects better candidates. Men are evenly divided, with about as many saying the Republican Party as the Democratic Party (36% vs. 39%). Women say the Democratic Party selects better candidates, by 43%-29%.

As might be expected, large proportions of both Republicans and Democrats tend to say that each of these positive image traits applies to their own party. But Republicans are less likely to say several traits apply to the GOP than Democrats are to say they better describe the Democratic Party.

Democrats overwhelmingly say the phrase “is more concerned with people like me” better describes the Democratic Party. Fully 87% of Democrats express this opinion; by contrast, a smaller majority of Republicans (65%) say that phrase better describes the Republican Party. The gap among partisans is almost as large in perceptions of which party can bring about the kind of change the country needs (20 points).

More Democrats than Republicans also view their own party as governing in a more honest and ethical way (74% vs. 64%). But in other image measures, similar numbers of Republicans and Democrats say their party embodies the positive traits. While 77% of Democrats say the phrase “can better manage the government” applies to the Democratic Party, about the same number of Republicans (75%) say it describes the Republican Party. About as many Republicans as Democrats say their party selects better candidates for office (69% of Republicans, 70% of Democrats).

Republicans Increasingly Critical of Party

Just 36% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say the Republican Party does an excellent or good job of standing up for traditional GOP positions on such issues as “reducing the size of government, cutting taxes and promoting conservative social values.” That is the lowest positive rating Republicans have given their party since Pew began tracking this measure in 2000. More than six-in-ten Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (62%) say the party has done only a fair or poor job in advocating these traditional positions.

Democratic voters are only slightly more positive than Republican voters in evaluating how well their party has performed in standing up for traditional Democratic positions on such things as “protecting the interests of minorities, helping the poor and needy, and representing working people.” Just 39% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters say the party has done an excellent or good job in this regard, while 57% rate the party’s performance as only fair or poor.

However, while Democrats have long been skeptical of their party’s record in standing up for traditional positions, Republicans have grown increasingly negative about the GOP’s performance in recent years. In July 2004, fully 61% of Republicans said the party was doing an excellent or good job of advocating traditional positions, and in March 2005 a narrow majority (51%) still expressed this opinion.

Since 2004, criticism of the Republican Party has increased sharply among all Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, especially conservative Republicans. Just 39% of conservative Republicans say the party is doing an excellent or good job in promoting traditional positions, down 30 points since July 2004. By comparison, the decline among moderate and liberal Republicans has been less pronounced (19 points).