March 16, 2009

Obama’s Approval Rating Slips Amid Division Over Economic Proposals

Section 3: The Republican Party’s Doldrums

Barack Obama’s job approval ratings are not the only ones to have slipped lately. Public approval of the job Republican leaders in Congress are doing has fallen to the lowest point in Pew Research Center surveys going all the way back to 1994. Just 28% of Americans say they approve of the job Republicans are doing in Congress, down from 34% a month ago. Slightly more than half (51%) say they disapprove.

With the drop in GOP approval, the gap between public evaluations of Democratic and Republican congressional leaders is the largest Pew has recorded over the past eight years in which both party’s leaders have been evaluated. Currently, 47% of Americans approve of the job Democratic leaders in Congress are doing – virtually unchanged from a month ago and 19 points higher than the approval rating for Republicans. For most of the past decade, approval of Republicans and Democrats in Congress have tracked very closely together.

Since February, the drop in GOP approval has been the steepest among Republicans themselves. Just 43% of Republicans say they approve of the job their party’s leaders in Congress are doing – nearly as many (37%) say they disapprove. This is a 12-point drop in approval from a month ago, when 55% of Republicans gave their party’s congressional leaders a positive evaluation. Approval of GOP leaders has slipped among Democrats and independents, but only slightly. Today, 26% of independents approve of GOP leaders’ performance, as do 19% of Democrats.

The drop in Republican approval of their party’s congressional leadership spans most segments of the party’s base. In particular, neither conservatives nor moderates within the party are particularly happy with their party’s leaders today. Fewer than half (46%) of conservative Republicans offer a favorable assessment, down from 56% a month ago. And just 40% of moderate and liberal Republicans approve of the job GOP congressional leaders are doing, down from 52% a month ago. The decline in approval within the GOP base has been most severe among higher income Republicans (from 56% in February to 42% today) and those who are not college graduates (from 57% a month ago to 42% today).

Anger over the growing federal budget deficit is closely linked to Republican frustration with their party’s congressional leaders. Nearly half (48%) of Republicans say the deficit “makes them angry,” and those who feel this way are far less happy about the performance of party leaders than those who are only bothered, but not angry, about the deficit. Among Republicans angry about the deficit, 44% disapprove and 38% approve of the job their party’s congressional leaders are doing. Among those just bothered by the deficit, the balance of opinion is reversed: 48% approve and 34% disapprove.

A Leaderless Party?

Barely a quarter (27%) of Americans, including just 32% of Republicans, can name someone who they think of as the leader of the Republican Party these days. Nearly three-quarters (73%) say they don’t know who leads the party, or volunteer that nobody does.

By comparison, nearly half (46%) were able to name a leader of the Democratic Party in April of 2006 when they were in the minority in both the House and Senate, while 54% could not name anyone.

Of the names offered as the GOP’s leader, John McCain is mentioned more than any other. About one-in-ten Americans (11%) – and 12% of Republicans – offer McCain’s name as the leader of the party. The next-most-mentioned name is Rush Limbaugh, who is cited by 5%. Limbaugh is named as the GOP’s leader by roughly the same share of Republicans (4%) Democrats (6%) and independents (5%).

Newt Gingrich and Michael Steele are each mentioned by 2% of Americans. No other politician’s name comes up more than 1% of the time.

Rush Limbaugh’s Influence

Nearly four-in-ten Americans (39%) say they think Rush Limbaugh has too much influence over the Republican Party; just 13% say he has too little influence and 23% say he has the right amount of influence. The prevailing view among Republicans is that Limbaugh’s influence is appropriate – 44% say he has the right amount of influence over the party. But conservative Republicans are more comfortable with Limbaugh’s influence than moderates and liberals within the party. About half (49%) of conservative Republicans say Limbaugh has the right amount of influence, while 18% say too much. Among moderate and liberal Republicans, 34% say Limbaugh has the right amount of influence, while 28% say too much.