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Perceptions of the GOP leave it in a bad spot as 2016 approaches

This combo made from file photos shows the 2016 Republican presidential candidates who had officially declared their candidacy as of Sunday, July 12, 2015. (AP Photo)

This combo made from file photos shows the 2016 Republican presidential candidates who had officially declared their candidacy as of Sunday, July 12, 2015. (AP Photo) 

Perceptions of the Republican Party leave it in a bad spot as next year’s election approaches.

According to a July survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, GOP favorability ratings have fallen by nine percentage points in the first half of 2015, from 41 percent favorable in January to 32 percent favorable in July, reaching their lowest levels in more than two years.

The Democratic Party has received higher favorability ratings than the GOP in recent years, but even Republicans have lowered their perceptions of the GOP. Six months ago, 86 percent viewed the GOP positively, but now only 68 percent do.

The competition for the GOP presidential nomination explains part of the decline. Hillary Clinton has strong support among a majority of Democrats; a July Monmouth University poll found her support at 51 percent with a 74 percent favorability rating. Except for the recent rise of Bernie Sanders, Clinton hasn’t faced much scrutiny within her party, and no other Democrat has cracked 20 percent support in any poll.

Republicans, meanwhile, have more than a dozen candidates vying for the nomination. The winning candidate is anything but clear, and with their sound bites dominating election coverage, it’s no surprise to see the GOP fall in popularity, inside or outside the party.

The GOP hasn’t improved its image on honesty or empathy, either.

Pew finds that the Democratic Party has 45 percent support on whether it “governs in a more honest and ethical way,” whereas the GOP has 29 percent support, a 16 point difference. When asked whether the Democratic Party “is more concerned with needs of people like me,” 53 percent support the statement, but only 31 percent support it for the GOP, a 22 point difference.

Since 2011, the GOP has been seen as the more extreme party. The statement garners 52 percent support about the GOP, and only 35 percent support about the Democrats, a 17 point difference.

That could stem from a growing political polarization that Pew studied last year; more Republicans have become consistently conservative, and more Democrats have become consistently liberal.

Changes in the state of the media play a role too.  Niche media sources can cater to audiences based on geographic, demographic, economic, and political differences. When audiences gravitate toward sources that share their political inclinations, they hear fewer diverse opinions, which makes one side appear reasoned and wise, and the other extreme and dangerous to society.

Perceiving the GOP as more extreme might be driven by polarization more so than reality.

As a Live Science article notes, people who strongly identify as Republicans or Democrats perceive polarization more than others. If polarization has been growing more among Democrats than Republicans, which the Pew study suggests, it could explain some of the lead the GOP has in its reputation as the more extreme party. The 17-point gap between the two parties, though, is too large for perception to explain it all.

It’s not surprising the Republican Party has fallen in favorability, given the dynamics of the GOP nomination field.

Until the Republican field narrows, or until the Democratic field expands to draw more media attention that crowds out the GOP coverage, the scrutiny and self-critical examination will remain. The bigger question is how, or whether, the GOP can improve its image by the end of 2016.


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