Discuss as:

GOP brand suffers heading into election season

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan shifted their focus to the economy Wednesday, but Akin's "legitimate rape" gaffe continued to dominate the conversation. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.


There are worrying signs about the Republican brand nationally, just five days before the party gathers for its convention and 76 days before Election Day.

A majority of voters in the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll called presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and GOP candidates for Congress "out of step" with most Americans' thinking compared to President Barack Obama and Democratic candidates.

And 29 percent of registered voters said they had "very negative" impressions of the Republican Party – the second-highest number of voters to give the most intensely negative assessment of the GOP in the history of the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, dating back to 1990.

The only other instance in which the “very negative” rating for the GOP surpassed that was in 2006, before Republicans received a drubbing at the polls.

The numbers underscore the headwinds facing Republicans heading into an election they're eager to win, and illustrate the stakes for the GOP next week in Tampa, where they'll have an opportunity to soften impressions of the party.

"It’s frustrating. This president has spent tens of millions of dollars trying to tag Republicans as the party of the rich and the 1 percent," said Frank Donatelli, the chairman of GOPAC, a group dedicated to training Republican candidates.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd breaks down the latest NBC News/ WSJ poll.

"Republicans need to push back even harder talking about growth and jobs," he said. "That is the issue of the election; we’ve gotten a little bit away from that."

Indeed, the campaign has been focused mostly on Medicare in the week and a half since Romney added Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan -- the author of a plan including controversial reforms to the entitlement program -- to the Republican ticket.

That focus was only eclipsed by the controversy this week involving Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin, whose impolitic comments about abortion rights in the instance of rape threatened to raise a messy debate that could cost GOP candidates among women voters, with whom they already generally lag.

"Republicans have really gotten off-message in the last week and a half," said a veteran GOP operative well-versed in the party's campaign efforts. "If you’re Mitt Romney or a Republican candidate, you need to be operating within a message framework centered on economic issues, not on issues that are historically unfriendly to Republicans."

But the souring GOP brand likely has a longer tail than the last few weeks. A bloody presidential primary and congressional gridlock have contributed to a sense that Republicans don’t represent the mainstream.

GOP leaders like Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn were hoping Rep. Todd Akin wouldn't be running for Senate in Missouri, NBC News' Chuck Todd suggests. Todd joins a conversation about Akin's impact on the GOP brand, why Mitt Romney needs to make the RNC count for him and a new NBC News/WSJ poll on the '12 election.

Fifty-four percent of voters said that Republican candidates for Congress were out of step with the public, versus 38 percent who called them mainstream. By contrast, voters view Democratic candidates more evenly: 45 percent said Democratic congressional candidates were mainstream, and 48 percent called them out of step.

"The Republican brand has become the opposite of what the middle class is looking for," said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

He pointed to House Republicans' votes to approve Ryan’s controversial budgets, and repeated votes to repeal health care reform -- among other instances of legislative gridlock -- as contributing to a decline in the GOP's image.

To that end, Democrats opened up an advantage over Republicans on the question of the generic ballot -- which party voters generally prefer to control Congress -- in the August NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Forty-seven percent of voters said they prefer Democratic control of Congress, and 42 percent support GOP control; a one or two-point margin had separated the parties on that question since April.

Several Republicans who spoke for this story expressed concern that Romney's selecting Ryan as a running mate had needlessly made Medicare a central issue in the campaign. While Republicans had expected to fight on that issue, and had sought to inoculate themselves from having voted for Ryan's controversial budgets, some questioned the wisdom of having spent much of the last week and a half fighting on that issue -- one usually favorable to Democrats -- rather than the economy.

But voters’ adverse impression of Republicans might not translate to losses in Congress, at least in the House. Most election prognosticators have said their models don’t predict the kind of Democratic wave in the House that would deliver the net gain of 25 seats they need to retake control.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

Several Republicans expressed concern that Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as a running mate had needlessly made Medicare a central issue in the campaign.

“The popularity of Congress, top to bottom, is not extremely high,” said Brad Dayspring, a senior adviser to the Young Guns Action Fund, a super PAC founded by former aides to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. “That being said, a lot depends on what happens in the individual races. Individual members of Congress, especially a lot of our freshmen, remain popular at home. Additionally, the Republican majority becomes a lot more important to people when it serves as a check and a balance.”

The brand problem could be more serious in statewide races for Senate or governorships – or on the national, presidential level. But some conservatives are betting their enthusiasm and general disappointment in Obama’s performance after four years might be enough to deliver the election.

“The Republican brand is not fully restored to its pre-2000 level. But this election isn’t going to be won by the Republican brand, it’s going to be won by what I call the ‘Allied Forces’ – the Tea Partiers, the establishment and everybody working toward a common goal,” said Al Cardenas, the chairman of the American Conservative Union.

“You don’t need the Republican Party to be at full strength, but what you need is all of those forces to be working together,” Cardenas added.