April 3, 2013
(Alex Brandon/Associated Press)
(Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

Greg Sargent looks at some recent polling and GOP incentives and asks:

But that puts the party as a whole out of step with the broader public on many major issues facing the country. Paging the political science types: How do Republicans get out of this hole? Is this a serious problem? Does it matter?

I like the answer that Stephen Pimpare gave over Twitter, especially two points: “don’t assume voters behave coherently/rationally” and “stated public opinion on policy is shallow, changeable, inconsistent.” Brendan Nyhan also had a good response: “Parties often hold unpopular positions but win anyway when structural conditions are favorable.”

How can we think about this? The key, I think, is just to focus on party identification as by far the most important factor in vote choice. Basically, people who think of themselves as Republicans are going to vote for Republican candidates, and it’s relatively difficult to push them off of that. Sure, it’s possible. But single issues, even multiple single issues, are unlikely to do the trick.

The exception would be single issues which are powerful enough for individuals that they break the bonds of party. But for that, it doesn’t really matter how the population in general feels about an issue, even at the 90 percent level; what matters, presumably (and I don’t think we have a lot of studies on this) is whether that particular issue is so central to one’s political identity that it overrides habit and loyalty. And most issues, for most of us, aren’t anywhere close to that.

At any rate, our natural tendency is to wish away or downplay any clash between our feelings on issues and our party attachment.

What this suggests to me is that most of what Greg is talking about is probably not an electoral concern at all; it’s already factored in, or it doesn’t rise to the level of mattering.

That’s not to say that issues, in the broad sense, can never matter. For example, to the extent that GOP hostility to immigration and other issues is perceived by Latinos as hostility to them as a group, and to the extent that they therefore use ethnicity as their primary political identity and identify the Democrats as the “correct” party for Latinos — and to the extent they are a growing group within the electorate — then it certainly could cause trouble for Republicans. But each of the links there has to work. And most of the time, for most issues, it just doesn’t; there are hardly any voters, for example, who primarily think of themselves politically as opponents of gun violence and who are currently Republicans and therefore might flip to the Democratic Party because of that issue.

Now, granted, in close elections anything, even a very weak factor, can make all the difference. But overall? No, I don’t expect Republican troubles on specific public policy issues to be a significant electoral factor in 2014, 2016, or going forward.