As another round of voting takes place this week in the Republican presidential race – with 11 states holding Super Tuesday contests – a new national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that the combative and heavily scrutinized primary season so far has damaged the party and its candidates.
Four in 10 of all adults say the GOP nominating process has given them a less favorable impression of the Republican Party, versus just slightly more than one in 10 with a more favorable opinion.
Additionally, when asked to describe the GOP nominating battle in a word or phrase, nearly 70 percent of respondents – including six in 10 independents and even more than half of Republicans – answered with a negative comment.
Some examples of these negative comments from Republicans: "Unenthusiastic," "discouraged," "lesser of two evils," "painful," "disappointed," "poor choices," "concerned," "underwhelmed,” “uninspiring” and “depressed.”
And perhaps most significantly, the GOP primary process has taken a toll on the Republican presidential candidates, including front-runner Mitt Romney, who is seen more unfavorably and whose standing with independents remains underwater.
“The primaries have not raised the stature of the party, nor enhanced the appeal of the candidates,” says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff.
“The word you’d have to use at this stage is: ‘Corrosive,’” McInturff adds.
The damage from the Republican primary season – in addition to a rising job-approval rating for President Obama and more optimism about the U.S. economy – has given Democrats an early advantage for November’s general election.
Indeed, the president’s job-approval rating now stands at 50 percent; Obama leads Romney in a hypothetical general-election match up by six points; and Democrats hold a five-point edge on the generic congressional ballot.
If this poll’s outlook on the 2012 race were a cocktail, Hart says, it would be “one part Obama, one part the economy, and three parts the Republican Party’s destruction.”
Bad news and good news for Romney
How damaging has the primary season – with all of its debates, attack ads and scrutiny -- been for the Republican Party?
Forty percent of all adults say the GOP contest so far has made them feel less favorable about the party, while 12 percent say they now have a more favorable impression. Forty-seven percent say it’s had no impact.
Even among Republicans, 23 percent maintain the primary season has given them a less favorable opinion of the party, versus 16 percent who say it’s been positive.
In addition, 55 percent of respondents – including 35 percent of Republicans – believe the Democratic Party does a better job than the GOP in appealing to those who aren’t hard-core supporters. Just 26 percent say the Republican Party does a better job on this front.
And it’s been damaging for Romney, too. In January’s NBC/WSJ poll, Romney’s favorable/unfavorable rating stood at 31 percent to 36 percent among all respondents (and 22/42 percent among independents).
But in this latest survey, it’s now 28 percent favorable and 39 percent unfavorable (and 22/38 percent among independents).
In fact, Romney’s image right now is worse than almost all other recent candidates who went on to win their party’s presidential nomination: Obama’s favorable/unfavorable ratio was 51/28 percent and John McCain’s was 47/27, in the March 2008 NBC/WSJ poll; John Kerry was at 42/30 at this point in 2004; George W. Bush was 43/32 in 2000; and Bob Dole was 35/39 in March 1996.
The one exception: Bill Clinton, in April 1992, was at 32/43 percent.
But there is also some good news for Romney in the poll, especially as it relates to his bid to capture the GOP presidential nomination.
After his primary victories last Tuesday in Arizona and Michigan, the former Massachusetts governor leads the national Republican horserace, getting support from 38 percent of GOP voters, his highest-ever mark in the poll.
He’s followed by former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum at 32 percent and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul tied at 13 percent.
In a race reduced to just two candidates, Romney leads Santorum by five percentage points, 50 to 45 percent.
In particular, Romney has improved his standing with Tea Party supporters, getting support from 44 percent of them in a two-way contest against Santorum.
And what’s more, 72 percent of Republicans say they would be satisfied if Romney becomes their party’s presidential nominee.
Obama’s improved political standing
When it comes to President Obama, the poll contains mostly good news. Fifty percent approve of his job – his highest mark in the NBC/WSJ survey since Osama bin Laden’s death – and 45 percent disapprove.
In a hypothetical general-election contest, he leads Romney by six points, 50 to 44 percent, winning independents (46-39 percent), women (55-37 percent) and those in the Midwest (52-42 percent).
Obama enjoys bigger leads over Paul (50 to 42 percent), Santorum (53 to 39 percent) and Gingrich (54 to 37 percent).
Bolstering Obama’s standing is increased optimism about the state of the U.S. economy.
Forty percent believe the economy will improve during the next year, a three-point increase from January. And looking back at the economic recession, 57 percent say that the worst is behind us, while 36 percent say the worst is still to come.
Back in November, only 49 percent said the worst was behind us.
“President Obama is probably in the best political shape he’s been in since his initial year as president,” says Hart, the Democratic pollster.
The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted from Feb. 29 through March 3 of 800 adults (including 200 by cellphone), and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.5 percentage points. The poll also contains an oversample of 185 interviews to achieve a total of 400 GOP primary voters, and that margin of error is plus-minus 4.9 percentage points.