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Today's GOP is both united and divided

By Jon Cohen and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 30, 2009; A01

The Republican rank and file is largely in sync with GOP lawmakers in their staunch opposition to efforts by President Obama and Democrats to enact major health-care legislation, but a new Washington Post poll also reveals deep dissatisfaction among GOP voters with the party's leadership as well as ideological and generational differences that may prove big obstacles to the party's plans for reclaiming power.

Republicans and GOP-leaning independents are overwhelmingly negative about Obama and the Democratic Party more broadly, with nearly all dissatisfied with the administration's policies and almost half saying they are "angry" about them. About three-quarters have a more basic complaint, saying Obama does not stand for "traditional American values." More than eight in 10 say there is no chance they would support his reelection.

But for all the talk among Republican elected officials about a nascent comeback after gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey this month, there is also broad frustration among Republican voters about the party's direction, detachment from its congressional representatives and a schism over its priorities.

Fewer than half of the Republicans and Republican-leaners surveyed by The Washington Post see the party's leadership as taking the GOP in the "right direction," down sharply from this time four years ago. About four in 10 are dissatisfied with the policy proposals being offered by congressional Republicans, and similar numbers see the current crop of GOP legislators as out of touch with their problems and personal values. Nearly a third say the Republicans in Congress are not standing up for the party's core values.

This portrait of how Republicans see their party is part of an ongoing series of stories examining the GOP at the midpoint between its disastrous losses in the 2006 and 2008 elections, and the midterm elections in 2010 and the 2012 presidential contest. The findings are based on a national survey of 1,306 adults, including additional interviews with Republicans and Republican-leaning independents and a set of focus groups in Arapahoe County, Colo., a GOP-leaning county that Obama carried handily in 2008.

No clear leader

Asked who leads the Republican Party at this point, one group participant, Ryan Brown, a computer programmer, cited two men who are often at odds: Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the party's 2008 presidential nominee, and Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio talk show host. But he was hesitant: "I'll bet you could go around here, and either people would not have an answer or they would have a different answer for that," he said. He was right, and the poll reveals similar threads of uncertainty.

Nearly three in 10 of those surveyed expressed no opinion about who in the GOP best reflects the party's principles or volunteered that no one does. Topping the list of named leaders was former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, the party's 2008 vice presidential nominee.

In the poll, taken amid the media whirlwind surrounding the release of her memoir "Going Rogue," more cite Palin than other Republicans as best reflecting the party's core values and as the top vote-getter in hypothetical presidential nomination contests. But on neither question did she exceed 20 percent backing among all Republicans.

Just 1 percent pick George W. Bush as the best reflection of the party's principles, and only a single person in the poll cites former vice president Richard B. Cheney. About seven in 10 say Bush bears at least "some" of the blame for the party's problems.

At the recent Republican Governors Association meetings in Austin, party officials discounted the absence of a single clear leader, arguing that what is most important is for Republicans to resist Obama's domestic agenda, reaffirm conservative principles and begin to articulate an alternative set of ideas. These officials expect to pick up seats in Congress and win more governorships in next year's elections, and think new, formidable leaders will emerge from those victories.

In the meantime, Republicans are faced with significant discord within their ranks. They are divided over how much to work with Obama on energy and climate-change legislation. There are generational differences on the role of religion in public life and how much emphasis the party should put on hot-button issues such as same-sex marriage. And the party's moderate and conservative wings have widely divergent views on a number of issues.

If there is one thing the party's strategists have in their favor at the outset of their push to regain majority status, it is broad public dissatisfaction with the way the country's political system is working -- the same force that helped propel Obama into office a year ago.

Overall, more than six in 10 Americans say they are unhappy with the way things are going politically, and half are discontent or downright angry about the policies of the Obama administration. On each of these fronts, dissatisfaction among Republicans is nearly universal.

In the Colorado focus groups, Republican voters expressed strong concerns about the first year of the Obama presidency. Pam Hyde, 53, who works at an elementary school, said new government spending worries her. "We'll never recover from that," she said. "I can't imaging recouping the money that he's proposing to spend. Unbelievable."

Health care was a particular concern in the groups, and a point of strong GOP unity in the poll. Talking about the legislative initiative, Karon Dawson, 59, a data processing manager, said that "there are no provisions in there to save any money or do anything to make a difference. . . . [It] is a waste right now unless they change it. It's like: 'Okay, we've got a bill out there but it's not going to be any good.' "

When to cooperate?

In the poll, nearly eight in 10 Republicans and GOP-leaners alike want party lawmakers to try to stop the health-care-reform proposals Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress are pitching; almost all these GOP voters feel "strongly" about their opposition to health-care reform.

More Republicans have compromise in mind when it comes to Democratic efforts to revamp the country's energy policy. On this front, as many of them want congressional Republicans to work with Democrats on these changes as those who want the process halted. When it comes to their general position, 56 percent want Republicans to engage Democrats in an effort to get GOP ideas into legislation; 41 percent would prefer simply to stop the Democratic agenda.

The debate over whether to seek compromises cuts to the heart of the question about the party's future. The party's "very conservative" bloc is strongly opposed to it; others are more open to the idea, even on health-care reform.

Overall, though, the GOP is a party that has become increasingly conservative, particularly on fiscal issues. Obama's stimulus package of nearly $800 billion, bailouts for banks and the auto industry, and a health-care bill with a price tag of nearly $900 billion over 10 years have aroused strong opposition on the right.

Almost three-quarters of Republicans and GOP-leaners identify themselves as "conservative" on most issues, up sharply from a couple of years ago. (In some part, the rise is attributable to fewer Americans calling themselves Republicans; with an average of just 22 percent in Post polls this year saying so, the lowest number in polls since 1981.)

On fiscal issues, the percentage calling themselves conservative has soared to more than eight in 10. More striking is that a majority considers themselves to be "very conservative" on fiscal issues, up about 20 points in two years. On social issues, two-thirds of Republicans say they are conservative, and about a third of Republicans say they are very conservative. Overall, about two in 10 are both fiscally conservative and moderate-to-liberal on social issues.

Republicans are now debating whether and how much candidates should be allowed to stray from party doctrine. That issue caused a split in the special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich and others backed the Republican candidate and other leaders, including Palin, endorsed the Conservative Party candidate.

Last week, some Republican National Committee members began circulating a resolution, to be taken up early next year by the RNC, setting out a purity test for candidates.

In the new poll, 69 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaners say they think it is all right for the party's candidates to take moderate positions on some issues; 27 percent say they want candidates to hew exclusively to conservative positions.

Support for allowing some deviation from conservative views is particularly high among the two in 10 who describe themselves as conservative on fiscal issues but moderate to liberal on social ones. Among that group, more than eight in 10 say it is okay for Republican candidates to veer from conservative positions.

Among those who see themselves as very conservative in their views (about a third of the sample), however, 53 percent say candidates should embrace only conservative positions, highlighting the potential for continued divisions and GOP primary battles next year.

Splits on the issues

The GOP's internal fissures are also pointed up on the question of what issues voters think the party should focus on in its attempt at resurgence.

About a third of Republicans and GOP-leaners say the party is putting "too little" emphasis on same-sex marriage, but nearly as many say it is spending "too much" time on it. Here, there are big divisions by group, with younger people evenly divided between whether the party overemphasizes or underemphasizes the issue. More than four in 10 moderates say too much, with a similar proportion of the very conservative saying too little.

There is a similar split within the GOP on abortion. Moderates and non-religious Republicans are on one side, and staunchly conservative ones and white evangelical Christians are on the other.

Younger Republicans are also much more apt to advocate for increased emphasis on environmental concerns, with 44 percent saying the GOP focuses on environmental concerns too little and 14 percent too much.

Most Republicans, regardless of age, see the party as paying too little attention to federal spending. Most strongly oppose the government's use of hundreds of billions of dollars over the past two years to bolster the economy. Illegal immigration, which caused a major rift within the party during Bush's presidency, is another area in which most Republicans would like to see party leaders pay more attention.

Which way GOP?

Throughout the year, some "tea party" protesters and others at congressional town hall meetings have expressed grievances with the leaders of both parties. That disconnect between the party's congressional leadership and rank-and-file Republicans shows up in the Post poll when people were asked several questions about those leaders.

One year out from the 2006 midterm elections, 76 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaners said the leadership of the party was taking it in the right direction; now, 49 percent say so.

Barely more than a third of Republicans and GOP-leaners in the poll say the party shares their views on "most issues." Although most say congressional Republicans understand the concerns of people like themselves, share their personal values and are true to the party's core values, sizable numbers disagree.

Citing incidents in which Republican elected officials have confessed to extramarital affairs, Stephany Reed, 27, a student and stay-at-home mother, said: "Their moral character is totally not moral. . . . When your personal life is in shambles and your house is not in order . . . then it's going to affect how you lead us."

One rallying point for the GOP, though, is a broad perception among moderates, conservatives, and younger and older Republicans alike that television news is biased against the Republican Party and tilted highly in favor of Obama and Democrats. Nearly nine in 10 see the news media's treatment of Palin as unfair.

But that does not mean they are ready to get behind her, or any other potential candidate, to take on Obama. Perhaps no single indicator reveals the party's current fractures as do the poll's findings on the question of who Republicans are looking to in 2012: About four in 10 said they do not have an opinion or cited "nobody" as their preferred candidate.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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