Can the Republican Party retain the support it received in the 1980 election? The opinion polls taken during the past few months suggest that deepening recession and growing unemployment have severely undermined Ronald Reagan's image and may return the Democrats to a dominant position in 1982 congressional elections.
In 1980 the GOP built a powerful coalition of more affluent economic conservatives and less educated, more religious social conservatives. Inflation, then the major economic problem, fostered acceptance of a conservative solution-- cuts in government spending and activity--even by the relatively underprivileged.
The shift toward support of the GOP was also aided by growing international tensions and evidence of a Soviet military buildup. During the late 1970s, opinion polls revealed a steady growth in support for a strong anti-Communist defense and foreign policy posture, an orientation that favored Republican candidates.
Yet even in 1980, the picture was not completely one-sided. Surveys of recent years indicated that significant majorities of Americans, including many Republicans, had accepted social welfare, regulatory, and economic planning activities as proper roles for the state. This was true even though many of the same people regarded government as a wasteful, inefficient institution that misused its overly high tax revenues, did an inadequate job of regulation, and contributed to inflation through various policies. The public still wants the state to protect citizens from the adverse effects of decline in the business cycle, malpractices by business and trade unions, old age, and ill health, and favors efforts to expand opportunity for the deprived. Basically, Americans favor a more efficient and less wasteful version of the welfare state.
The Republicans gained not because a majority rejected the welfare/regulatory state, but because many shared the impression that the incumbent Democrats did a bad job of administering these policies; that another set of politicians might do better in improving economic conditions and America's international position.
Reactions to the so-called social issues of busing for school integration, affirmative action quota programs, government-financed abortion, law and order, religion in the schools and pornography were also related to the Republican and conservative revival. Support for conservative social positions is correlated with low education and low socioeconomic status and with fundamentalist religious affiliation. Because of their class position, many who are socially conservative also tend to be economically liberal, often Democratic in their past voting behavior.
If only a few percent shifted their vote from Democratic to Republican in 1980 because of the social issues, this might have been enough to change election results, particularly in close congressional contests.
The Republicans, however, are now confronted with a serious dilemma as they are called upon to take action in the 1982 congressional session on the social issues by well-organized groups of single-issue voters. If they do so, they risk antagonizing the disproportionately well-educated, socially liberal majority, many of whom are economic conservatives or moderates.
The Republican leadership is clearly aware of this problem. National Committee Chairman Richard Richards has frequently criticized the activities of the National Conservative Political Action Committee and similar groups. The founding father of the Republican and conservative revival, Barry Goldwater, has also strongly attacked Richard Viguerie, the leader of the New Right, the Moral Majority, and the Right to Life group for their focus on single issues.
Republicans face an even more important problem in economic policy, given the increase in joblessness. The public credits government with the ability to cause and to eliminate inflation and unemployment. The high rate of both in 1979-80 was almost certainly Ronald Reagan's greatest political asset. His question, "Are you personally better or worse off than four years ago?" had a profound effect on millions of Americans who had seen their real income decline. But the GOP now faces the problem as it enters a congressional election year that when Gallup inquired in January 1982: "Compared with 12 months ago, would you say your family is better off financially or worse off financially?" 41 percent replied worse off and only 28 percent said better off.
Although the majority of those interviewed in the opinion polls initially approved Reagan's efforts to cut taxes and spending in order to reduce inflation, their sensitivity to the plight of the less fortunate leads them to judge the administration as overly favorable to the well-to-do and large corporations in the way that it has applied these policies. GOP leaders from varying parts of the ideological spectrum voiced similar concerns at the end of the president's first year in office.
From the right, Richard Viguerie has complained that people representing a "big, multinational corporate view are basically running the country today." Two congressional spokesmen for the more liberal "neo-conservative" wing, Rep. Jack Kemp and House Minority Whip Trent Lott, have argued that Reagan's "economists go after the little guy" and have demanded reductions in the ''vast amount of corporate welfare." And leaders of the dominant center of the GOP, such as House Minority Leader Robert Michel, and Pete Domenici, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, also openly criticize the president for cutting social programs. Domenici has warned of a public "perception . . . that it's not fair."
What overwhelmed Jimmy Carter was the widespread belief that he had mismanaged the economy. Reagan and the Republicans must expect to be judged by the same criteria. They will be pressed to improve the economy, even if it involves following policies which contradict their basic ideology.