IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

McCain remembrances throw the partisan divide into even starker relief

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: John McCain Celebrates Primary Night In Dallas
John McCain and his wife, Cindy, celebrate clinching the Republican presidential nomination at a campaign rally on March 4, 2008.Rick Gershon / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — As we remembered John McCain over the weekend, countless admirers of the late Arizona senator noted his ability to build bridges, to see past differences and find common ground. His defiance of party labels — while maddening to those opposing him on whichever issue he happened to be working on — earned the trust and respect of colleagues both sides of the aisle.

It goes without saying, then, that McCain’s loss is particularly poignant at a moment in history when the grip of political partisanship seems more permanent — and personal — than ever. (See, for example, the Washington Post’s reporting that President Donald Trump rejected plans for a White House statement calling McCain a “hero” — opting instead for a brief tweet devoid of that praise.)

Those partisan divisions were reflected in the new NBC/WSJ polling we released over the weekend. For example:

  • Trump’s cumulative approval rating among Republicans (between the two polls we conducted last week) was 88 percent, while his disapproval rating among Democrats was 90 percent.
  • 94 percent of Clinton voters have a negative view of Donald Trump (84 percent very negative), while 85 percent of Trump voters have a positive view (68 percent very positive).
  • Just 4 percent of Democrats have a positive view of the Republican Party, while just 3 percent of Republicans have a positive view of the Democratic Party.
  • 82 percent of Republicans say that Democratic candidates for Congress are out of step with most Americans’ thinking, and a similar 80 percent of Democrats say the same of Republican candidates.

Those divisions may seem completely baked in to our political system at this point. In fact, the headline from our poll was that Trump’s approval rating has been remarkably stable even after a week that saw the conviction of one former confidante and the guilty plea of another. (More on that below).

But compare them with these data points about McCain’s legacy, as complicated with its own party as it may have been:

  • In the final poll before the 2016 election, 62 percent of Americans said that the presidential election had made them *less* proud of America. Just before the 2008 election between McCain and Barack Obama, only 12 percent said the same.
  • Shortly before the 2008 election, 15 percent of Democrats had a positive view of McCain, while 91 percent of Republicans had a positive view. But last year, an NBC/WSJ poll found that Democrats had a more positive view of McCain than Republicans. In November 2017, 52 percent of Democrats and just 35 percent of Republicans had a positive view.

Our colleague Tom Brokaw noted over the weekend that McCain’s passing should be cause for Americans to emulate his example of transcending party labels. “Have the courage, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, to take a stand against what you know is not the best interest of the country, but it happens to be the ideology of whoever's in the White House at the time,” he said.

And in his remembrance, McCain’s co-author and friend Mark Salter reminds us of McCain’s realistic optimism about the world. “McCain was a romantic about his causes and a cynic about the world. He had the capacity to be both things and to live with the contradiction. He had seen human beings at their best and worst — often in the same experience. He understood the world as it is with all its corruption and cruelty. But he thought it a moral failure to accept injustice as the inescapable tragedy of our fallen nature.”

Trump approval rating 'remarkably stable' after Cohen, Manafort news

If you wondered if the political needle would finally move after last week’s dismal news for the president — the conviction of Paul Manafort on eight counts of tax and bank fraud and the guilty plea by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen — we’ve got an answer. A pair of NBC News/WSJ polls that were in the field both before and after the Cohen and Manafort news found that Trump’s approval rating remains essentially unchanged, within the margin of error, at 46 percent approval/51 percent disapprove between Aug. 18-22, and at 44 percent approve/52 percent disapprove between Aug. 22-25.

And that’s not because voters aren’t aware of the stories. About eight-in-10 said that they’d heard at least some news about both news events. (And/but: that level of penetration makes them big stories but not huge ones, comparable to voters’ awareness of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal in 2014 or the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, but not the Trump Access Hollywood tape in 2016 or the spread of Ebola in 2014.)

It’s clear that Trump’s voters aren’t turning on him, even if his former business associates are. But there’s also a little bit of softness among Republicans that shows some potential vulnerabilities for the president. Asked if they believe that the wrongdoing by Trump’s associates is just limited to those individuals or could potentially involve Trump himself, only about half (53 percent) of Republicans are confident that Trump isn’t implicated, while 35 percent say they aren’t sure. That’s compared with 71 percent of Democrats who say Trump could be involved in wrongdoing.

Dems lead on generic ballot by 8 points

Also in the earlier poll (conducted August 18-22), Democrats now have an 8-point advantage on the generic ballot (50 percent to 42 percent) compared to a 6-point advantage last month (49 percent to 43 percent).

Democrats also continue to lead in intensity when it comes to the midterm elections, with 63 percent expressing the highest level of interest in the election compared with 52 percent of Republicans.

It’s an even wider divide when voters were asked whether November’s elections are more important to them than past congressional contests, with 56 percent of Democrats agreeing compared with just 38 percent of Republicans.

Dems benefit from a 'check and balance' message, but Pelosi could complicate it

Voters are equally divided on whether they are more bothered by the idea of Republicans not providing a check and balance on Trump if they control Congress (46 percent who say this), or Democrats going too far in obstructing the president if they’re in charge (45 percent). Here are some of the key breakdowns, by group:

  • Independents – 40 percent concerned Dems will go too far, 44 percent concerned GOP won’t provide check and balance (Advantage: Dem +4)
  • Moderates — 40 percent concerned Dems will go too far, 50 percent concerned GOP won’t provide check and balance (Advantage: Dem +10)
  • Voters in GOP-held districts — 47 percent concerned Dems will go too far, 44 percent concerned GOP won’t provide check and balance (Advantage: GOP +3)
  • Voters in Dem-held districts — 39 percent concerned Dems will go too far, 52 percent concerned GOP won’t provide check and balance (Advantage: Dem +13)

It’s a similar overall divide when voters are asked if they would be more bothered by a Democratic candidate who supports Nancy Pelosi (47 percent who say this) or by a Republican candidate who supports Trump (45 percent). But check out the same breakdowns:

  • Independents — 51 percent more bothered by Dem supporting Pelosi, 32 percent more bothered by Republican supporting Trump (Advantage: GOP +19)
  • Moderates — 46 percent more bothered by Dem supporting Pelosi, 45 percent more bothered by Republican supporting Trump (Advantage: Dem +1)
  • Voters in GOP-held districts — 51 percent more bothered by Dem supporting Pelosi, 43 percent more bothered by Republican supporting Trump (Advantage: GOP +8)
  • Voters in Dem-held districts— 41 percent more bothered by Dem supporting Pelosi, 49 percent more bothered by Republican supporting Trump (Advantage: Dem +8)

Flake: 'Nobody would be asking for' my endorsement in the GOP primary in Arizona

Don’t miss what outgoing Sen. Jeff Flake told one of us(!) yesterday, just two days before the Arizona GOP Senate primary.

Via Ben Kamisar: “Speaking with NBC’s 'Meet the Press,' the retiring Flake demurred when asked if he’d endorse a successor. Rep. Martha McSally, former state Sen. Kelly Ward and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio are all running in the GOP primary. 'No, I wish them well,' he said when prompted to give an endorsement. 'Nobody would be asking for it in the Republican primary, I can tell you that,' he said of his blessing. 'I’m not happy about it, but this is the president’s party right now. And I think we’ll be sorry for that in the future, but that’s the case right now.'”