As much as some Republicans would like to believe otherwise, the fact is that this primary is dragging down the party. Unlike the 2008 Democratic primary—in which two formidable candidates fought hard, debated substance, and energized voters around the country—this year’s GOP primary has been defined by clownish vanity candidates, divisive bickering, and an unlikable front-runner who—so far—has “won” by not losing.
None of this has done much to help the Republican Party. According to the latest survey by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 40 percent of adults say that “the GOP nominating process has given them a less favorable impression of the Republican Party,” compared with the 10 percent who have come away from the event satisfied. What’s more, when asked to describe the GOP primaries in a word or phrase, 70 percent (including 60 percent of independents and half of Republicans) reach for something negative:
“Unenthusiastic,” “discouraged,” “lesser of two evils,” “painful,” “disappointed,” “poor choices,” “concerned,” "underwhelmed,” “uninspiring” and “depressed.”
That this sounds like the voice-over to a commercial for depression medication, should be terrifying to the leaders of the Republican Party, since this is what they’ll have to overcome in the fall, during the general election. This job would be easier—or at least, less necessary—if Obama were on the ropes. As it stands, however, the president is in positive territory; 50 percent approve of his job and 45 percent disapprove.
The same can’t be said for the likely Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. So far, only 28 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the former Massachusetts governor, while 39 percent have an unfavorable view. If you restrict the sample to independents, this drops to 22/38, for a net unfavorability rating of 16 points. This continues the trend of Romney’s growing unpopularity with the mass of voters who aren’t Republicans. Indeed, when compared with previous presidential nominees, this is abysmal; John Kerry was at 42/30 at this point in 2004, and in 1996, Bob Dole was at 35/39.
The only presidential candidate to have comparably bad favorability ratings at this point in the game was Bill Clinton, 32 percent favorability and 43 percent unfavorability in April 1992. The difference is that, by then, Clinton was all but the leader of the Democratic Party. The party faithful trusted him in a way that simply isn’t true of Romney. What’s more, after more than a decade out of the White House, Democrats were willing to take a less orthodox Democrat like Clinton. Republicans, by contrast, aren’t convinced that they need moderation in the general election.
Mitt Romney isn’t Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama isn’t George H.W. Bush. That’s not to say that Romney can’t still win the election. He can, but it won’t be because people like him.