In those years, the Democratic Party became labeled, to its detriment, as the party of “acid, abortion and amnesty.” With the Democrats’ values far to the left of the silent majority, McGovern lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon in 1972.
While there are no catchy phrases for the Republicans of 2013, their image problems are readily apparent in national polls. The GOP has come to be seen as the more extreme party, the side unwilling to compromise or negotiate seriously to tackle the economic turmoil that challenges the nation.
It is no surprise that even elements of the Republican leadership that had been so confident of a Mitt Romney victory — including when it was clear that he was going to lose the election — are now looking at ways to find more electable candidates and cope with the disproportionate influence of hard-liners in the GOP. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus only scratched the surface this past week when he dissected the party’s November defeat: “There’s no one reason we lost. Our message was weak; our ground game was insufficient; we weren’t inclusive; we were behind in both data and digital; and our primary and debate process needed improvement. So there’s no one solution. There’s a long list of them.”
A long list, but one that doesn’t address the emergence of a staunch conservative bloc that has undermined the GOP’s national image.
The Republican Party’s ratings now stand at a 20-year low, with just 33 percent of the public holding a favorable view of the party and 58 percent judging it unfavorably, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Although the Democrats are better regarded (47 percent favorable and 46 percent unfavorable), the GOP’s problems are its own, not a mirror image of renewed Democratic strength.
Americans’ values and beliefs are more divided along partisan lines than at any time in the past 25 years. The values gap between Republicans and Democrats is now greater than the one between men and women, young and old, or any racial or class divides.
But while members of the Republican and Democratic parties have become more conservative and liberal, respectively, a bloc of doctrinaire, across-the-board conservatives has become a dominant force on the right. Indeed, their resolve and ultra-conservatism have protected Republican lawmakers from the broader voter backlash that is so apparent in opinion polls.
For decades, my colleagues and I have examined the competing forces and coalitions within the two parties. In our most recent national assessments, we found not only that the percentage of people self-identifying as Republicans had hit historic lows but that within that smaller base, the traditional divides between pro-business economic conservatives and social conservatives had narrowed. There was less diversity of values within the GOP than at any time in the past quarter-century.
The party’s base is increasingly dominated by a highly energized bloc of voters with extremely conservative positions on nearly all issues: the size and role of government, foreign policy, social issues, and moral concerns. They stand with the tea party on taxes and spending and with Christian conservatives on key social questions, such as abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
These staunch conservatives, who emerged with great force in the Obama era, represent 45 percent of the Republican base. According to our 2011 survey, they are demographically and politically distinct from the national electorate. Ninety-two percent are white. They tend to be male, married, Protestant, well off and at least 50 years old.
Knowing how this slice of the electorate came together is key to understanding why GOP lawmakers have been able to withstand the public backlash seen in polls — and why the party will face great difficulty in reinventing itself.
According to our polling, three factors stand out in the emergence of the GOP’s staunch conservative bloc: ideological resistance to President Obama’s policies, discomfort with the changing face of America and the influence of conservative media.
The Obama backlash
The conservative response to Obama was fast and furious as he began his first term. While Republicans wished him well for a month or two after his 2008 victory — as many as 59 percent reported a favorable opinion of him in January 2009 — their disapproval of the new president soon rose sharply. By the 100-day mark of Obama’s first term, 56 percent of Republicans disapproved of the president. And by January 2010, 61 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of conservative Republicans strongly disapproved of the president.
On a host of issues — gun control, abortion rights and global warming — national opinion quickly veered right. For the first time in more than a decade of polling, a Pew Research survey in April 2009 found nearly as many people saying it was more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns (45 percent) than to control gun ownership (49 percent). The same poll found that the share of the public saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases had declined to 46 percent from 54 percent just eight months earlier. In the fall of 2009, those saying they believed that the Earth was warming fell to 57 percent from 71 percent a year earlier.
The abortion shift proved to be short-lived — 54 percent once again believe it should be legal in most or all cases. But the public’s change of heart on gun control continues, even after Newtown. And belief in global warming has rebounded somewhat, but it remains significantly lower than it was before Obama took office.
Perhaps the most far-reaching change we observed in 2009 concerned the size and role of government. A growing plurality of Americans said they preferred a smaller government that offered fewer services (48 percent) rather than an activist government that offered more (40 percent), compared with a virtually even split on this question a year earlier. At the same time, a clear trend of increasing public support for the social safety net that we’d seen during the George W. Bush presidency reversed itself within months of Obama taking office.
These trends kicked in before health-care reform became such a dominant political issue, but the charged political debate over Obamacare only reinforced them.
This conservative tide of opinion — strengthened with the emergence of the tea party — showed its power in 2010, with a dramatic midterm election victory for the GOP that Obama himself called a “shellacking.” As the election approached, conservatives accounted for 68 percent of the Republican base, compared with 60 percent eight years earlier.
The changing face of America
The nation’s demographic and social shifts have also played a role in galvanizing the new bloc. Conservative Republicans are more likely (33 percent) than the public at large (22 percent) to see the growing number of Latinos in America as a change for the worse. Similarly, 46 percent of conservatives see increasing rates of interracial marriage as a positive development, compared with 66 percent of the public overall.
During Obama’s first term, ethnocentric attitudes — on immigration, equal rights and interracial dating — grew by 11 percentage points among conservative Republicans but did not increase significantly among any other political or ideological grouping. Some academic surveys found similar partisan polarization on racial measures over the course of Obama’s first term.
Race has loomed larger in voting behavior in the Obama era than at any point in the recent past. The 2010 election was the high mark of “white flight” from the Democratic Party, as National Journal’s Ron Brownstein called it — the GOP won a record 60 percent of white votes, up from 51 percent four years earlier.
To the conservative base, Obama, as an African American in the White House, may be a symbol of how America has changed. Unease with him sets conservative Republicans apart from other voting blocs — including moderate Republicans, who have hardly been fans of the president. For example, a fall 2011 national survey found 63 percent of conservative Republicans reporting that Obama made them angry, compared with 29 percent of the public overall and 40 percent of moderate Republicans.
The conservative media
If a values backlash and racial-political polarization helped forge the staunch conservative bloc, the conservative media has reinforced it.
The politicization of news consumption is certainly not new; it’s been apparent in more than 20 years of data collected by the Pew Research Center. What is new is a bloc of voters who rely more on conservative media than on the general news media to comprehend the world. Pew found that 54 percent of staunch conservatives report that they regularly watch Fox News, compared with 44 percent who read a newspaper and 30 percent who watch network news regularly. Newspapers and/or television networks top all other news sources for other blocs of voters, both on the right and on the left. Neither CNN, NPR or the New York Times has an audience close to that size among other voting blocs.
Conservative Republicans make up as much as 50 percent of the audiences for Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’ Reilly. There is nothing like this on the left. MSNBC’s “Hardball” and “The Rachel Maddow Show” attract significantly fewer liberal Democrats.
I see little reason to believe that the staunch conservative bloc will wither away or splinter; it will remain a dominant force in the GOP and on the national stage. At the same time, however, I see no indication that its ideas about policy, governance and social issues will gain new adherents. They are far beyond the mainstream.
Any Republican efforts at reinvention face this dilemma: While staunch conservatives help keep GOP lawmakers in office, they also help keep the party out of the White House. Quite simply, the Republican Party has to appeal to a broader cross section of the electorate to succeed in presidential elections.
This became apparent last fall. Voters generally agreed with the GOP that a smaller government is preferable to a larger, activist one, and therefore they disapproved of Obamacare. However, exit polls showed popular support for legalizing same-sex marriage and giving illegal immigrants opportunities for citizenship.
This combination of conservative and liberal views is typical. To win, both parties must appeal to the mixed values of the electorate. But it will be very hard for the Republican Party, given the power of the staunch conservatives in its ranks.
Of course, the Democrats of the 1970s were able to overcome their obstacles. All it took was Watergate, an oil embargo and a presidential pardon of Nixon for Jimmy Carter to secure a thin victory in 1976. Not even the most frustrated Republicans could hope for a similar turn of events.
Read more from Outlook, including:
Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem
Five myths about conservative voters
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