The sexy headline out of the new Pew Research Center poll is that more than six in ten Americans view the Republican party as “out of touch with the American people” while a majority (52 percent) believe the party is “too extreme.”
And, while those numbers are telling, a look deeper into the poll exposes the bigger problem for the GOP: The party is deeply divided (fractured?) — with many people who describe themselves as Republicans holding decidedly negative opinions about their side.
Consider the following data points out of the Pew data:
* More than one in three (36 percent) of Republicans say the party is out of touch with the American people. (Just 23 percent of Democrats say the same of their side.)
* Thirty percent of Republicans say their party isn’t open to change while just one in ten Democrats say the same of their side.
* Just 69 percent of Republicans have a favorable impression of their party. Compare that to 87 percent of Democrats who viewed their party in a favorable light.
It’s not just in poll numbers where this split within the GOP is apparent. The most obvious example is on immigration where the establishment of the party is pushing hard for some sort of deal on a comprehensive reform package while many within the base resist such a move. Or on gay marriage, where an increasing number of Republican establishment figures are coming forward to express their support for it even as the socially conservative wing of the base resists.
The question for Republicans is whether this family feud is the sort of thing that all parties out of power (or at least out of the White House) go through or whether there is something different — and more dangerous — happening here.
Those who believe this sort of infighting is commonplace insist that the difference between the factions of the party is largely tonal; it’s how they talk about what they believe not actually what they believe where there are differences.
There are others, however, who see the party’s rift in far deeper terms — that the differences are more fundamental and signal the breaking off of the tea party wing of “pure” conservatives from the establishment wing of “pragmatic” conservatives. (Adding to that perception: The fact that Sen. Marco Rubio gave the official Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address while libertarian aligned Sen. Rand Paul gave the tea party response.)
At a minimum, these fissures complicate the party’s messaging — Fix rule of politics: One messenger is better than two — as the GOP seeks to articulate its own governing vision for the country. At most, the party is headed for a reckoning in which the two factions within GOP will go to war with one emerging as ascendant.
It’s hard to tell which storyline is right at the moment. But the very fact that the GOP civil war scenario is a possibility is a problem for the party.