MSNBC/Wall Street Journal Poll: Republican Party and Its Presidential Candidates Hurt by Primary Season as Obama Rises

If politics is all about branding then the Republican Party and its candidates vying for the 2012 Presidential nomination are in trouble. A new MSNBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds President Barack Obama’s approval ratings are up, potential Republican candidates don’t do well in match ups against him, the primaryies have not helped the party’s image, and Democrats in Congress are seen more favorably now than Republicans. Details:

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.

The primary season has hurt GOP candidates running for President, particularly former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney who has suffered a serious erosion of independent voter support.

“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.

The GOP’s brand has been clearly damaged:

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.

This is critical because it’s highly unlikely that a party can win in 2012 without building a coalition that goes beyond its base.

Meanwhile, Romney’s image has taken a big hit:

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 historical terms:

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 good news for Romney: the poll finds that many Republicans are now settling him as the nominee and that 72% would be satisfied if he got the nomination.

And Obama? He is in his best shape in months:

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….

“President Obama is probably in the best political shape he’s been in since his initial year as president,” says Hart, the Democratic pollster.

This could clearly change due to a downturn in the economy, a major scandal involving Obama, a member of his administration or the administration, a bungling of the Iran issue…and more.

FOOTNOTE: On MSNBC’s Morning Joe this morning NBC political maven Chuck Todd noted that one reason why Obama’s numbers are going up is his increased support from women. Todd also pointed to a WHOPPING drop in Republican support from women voters — support that is unlikely to rise after the controversy over Rush Limbaugh’s virtual smearing of a Georgtown law student who advocated contraceptives being required in insurance plans. Limbaugh later apologized, but Republican President candidates when asked to comment before his apology (which some feel was a non-apology) on the controversy had either been evasive or found a way to not really denounce Limbaugh’s comments while putting a minimum distance between them. Republican leaders were a profile in non-courage, leading conservative columnist George Will to flatly say that Republican leaders were afraid of Limbaugh.

If independents and women voters flee the GOP it will have an uphill battle in winning the White House and in its hope to gain control of Congress.