Polling Beyond Core Republicans Points Up Challenges for GOP Convention

By Jeff Horwitt

BN-OZ089_GOPIma_J_20160718212212The Republican and Democratic parties are entering their conventions with their lowest pre-convention ratings in the history of the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. Negative views outweigh positive views of the Democratic Party by two points. For the GOP, the differential is far worse: 24 points.

Modern-day political conventions are effectively an extended infomercial for the parties. That means this is the Republican Party’s week to, presumably, try to expand its tent and widen its appeal beyond core voters. For Republicans to win in November, they must rally not only the traditional base–core Republicans make up just 17% of all registered voters, so less than 1 in 5–but also voters who identify as Republican and who may not support Donald Trump, as well as Democrats and independents, who together count for 83% of all registered voters. The latest WSJ/NBC poll suggests a fair amount of work lies ahead on several fronts. Here are three.

Improve the image of the Republican Party.  While 77% of core Republicans feel positively toward the party, and only 10% feel negatively, among voters outside the GOP core sentiments are reversed: Feelings toward the GOP among the rest of the electorate are 17% positive and 59% negative.

Conventions spotlight the presidential nominee but also help to frame the race for down-ballot Republicans. Among all registered voters, just 31% feel that when it comes to their approaches on the issues, Republican candidates for Congress are in the mainstream; 48% say the same of Democratic candidates for Congress.

Immigration is a flash point and is likely to be a major issue in battleground states in the presidential campaign–Florida, Nevada, Colorado–and could affect Senate races in Arizona, Nevada, and other states with sizeable Hispanic populations. Already, Hispanics are registering to vote in record numbers in some states. Among core Republicans, 63% say that immigration hurts the U.S. more than it helps. But among the rest of the country, the same share, 63%, feel the opposite: that immigration helps more than it hurts.

Improve the image of Donald Trump: Both Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton enter their conventions with unprecedented negatives for a major-party nominee. Mr. Trump’s numbers among registered voters (27% positive, 60% negative) are a degree worse than Mrs. Clinton’s (34% positive, 56% negative). The Republican standard-bearer is viewed very positively by the GOP core–72% positive, 12% negative–but overwhelmingly negatively by the rest of the country: 18% positive, 70% negative.

Prove to voters that Trump has the judgment to be president: Recent remarks and congressional testimony by FBI Director James Comey sharpened the criticism surrounding Mrs. Clinton’s use of private email while secretary of state. Despite her challenges, when voters outside of core Republicans are asked who has the judgment to be president, Mrs. Clinton leads Mr. Trump, 45% to 16%. He holds a large advantage among core Republicans–68% say Mr. Trump has the judgment to be president, while just 3% of core Republicans say that of Mrs. Clinton–but that’s one slice of the electorate, not representative of the view of most Americans.

There may be many applause lines amid the cheers and jeers in Cleveland this week, but smart observers will treat all that as little more than noise. The real deciders in this election are not those core Republicans gathered in Cleveland–whether Trump supporters or a vocal minority–but the vast majority of voters who are watching events from afar. Among them, Mr. Trump and his Republican Party have a hard road ahead.

Jeff Horwitt is a senior vice president at Hart Research Associates and is part of the polling team for the Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll. The views expressed here are his own. He is on Twitter: @jeffhorwitt.

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