There were a couple of items in today's NBC News/Wall Street Journal battleground poll that I think nicely illustrate the disconnect the Republican Party has as regards mainstream voters (and, conversely, the problem that creates for the country).
The poll is chock full of grim news for incumbents of both parties, with President Obama's approval rating sliding and Congress's disapproval rating reaching record highs. But when respondents were asked what aspect of Washington's dysfunction most angered them, pluralities named "partisanship and inability of Congress to get things done" as both the biggest single problem and also the most often-mentioned problem. The public, in other words, does not like gridlock.
Later, respondents were asked whether various Washington actors were trying to unify the country or emphasizing a partisan approach. No one fared well: Americans are basically split on Obama (45 percent said unifying and 48 percent said partisan, which is within the 3.1 percent margin of error), while Democrats are seen as favoring partisanship by 34-55. But the public holds an especially low view of the GOP in this case, with 22 percent believing the party wants to unify the country and three times as many – 67 percent – seeing a partisan approach from the GOP.
A few questions later respondents were asked whether congressional Republicans are too inflexible in dealing with President Obama or too quick to give in. At 56 percent, a majority of the general public – credit to them for paying attention – believe the GOP is too inflexible, while only 18 percent see the party as too quick to give in. But here's the arresting factoid, from NBC's write-up of the poll:
Yet a plurality of GOP respondents say congressional Republicans are too quick to give in to Obama. Hence the problem: "In their mind, Republicans have been too quick to give in to Obama," says NBC/WSJ co-pollster Bill McInturff (R). "For the average Republican House member, he or she is more likely to be concerned about a primary than general election."
Think about that for a moment. Voters don't like partisan gridlock and by wide margins not only see Republicans as hyperpartisan but specifically see them being unwilling to try to work to get things done, which is what most of the country wants … unless you're talking to Republican voters, a plurality of whom think their party is not inflexible enough. And since the overwhelming majority of House Republicans are in safe congressional districts, they're going to be more interested in paying attention to that small, insistent minority rather than the country as a whole or swing voters in particular.
This is, in a nutshell, the problem the party faces as its members split over the direction forward: whether to make a broad appeal or double down on the kind of fierce conservatism that appeals to the angry base. See, for example, the GOP civil war over immigration.
But it's also a problem for the country as a whole because, given that they control one half of the Congress, Republican cooperation is required for basic things like governing. The next time you hear that, for example, the GOP is threatening to shut down the government over a quixotic crusade like repealing Obamacare, remember these statistics. Sure the idea may be unpopular to the country at large, but that's not who Republicans are listening to these days.