Joshua Tucker: The following is a guest post by my colleague, New York University political scientist Patrick J. Egan. Egan is the author of “Partisan Priorities: How Issue Ownership Drives and Distorts American Politics” (Cambridge University Press 2013).
Republican stars such as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have launched a full-court press to convince the public that the GOP has the right policies to address persistent poverty. Their rollout of proposals and reforms is all part of an effort by the Republican Party to establish a reputation for caring about — and doing something about — poverty in America. It is keyed to the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, which gave birth to programs at the heart of America’s anti-poverty efforts including Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, and Head Start.
These programs were enacted in a breathtakingly productive 11-month span by President Lyndon Johnson and a Congress overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats (over the objection of majorities of Congressional Republicans). They help explain why a reputation for fighting poverty has long belonged nearly exclusively to the Democratic Party in the public’s mind. We can assess this by looking at how Americans respond when asked which party they believe is better at “handling” or “dealing with” poverty-related issues. The figure below displays results from all such questions appearing on national polls between 1980 and 2008 (compiled from surveys housed by the Roper Public Opinion Archives.)
The graph shows why the GOP is eager to change the national conversation on poverty. As can be seen at the bottom of the figure, the public trusts the Democrats as the party to handle poverty by overwhelming margins — by some 30 to 50 percentage points. Poverty is thus one of the issues that political scientists say is “owned” by the Democratic Party. (Other surveys show Democrats also own issues like education and the environment; Republicans own issues such as national security and crime.)
But there is a glaring exception to Democrats’ ownership of the poverty issue, and that is when a survey question mentions “welfare.” As shown at the top of the graph, here the numbers flip to a slight Republican advantage. The topic largely fell off the public’s radar after the passage of welfare reform in 1996. These data show the benefits that could accrue to today’s GOP if it successfully portrays the War on Poverty in the same way — as flawed and in need of reform.
Will this strategy work? In my new book on issue ownership, I show that parties own issues in part because their rank-and-file voters are deeply committed to prioritizing these issues. These commitments are then reflected in how the parties govern. I find that Democrats and Republicans spend more public dollars — and pass more landmark legislation — on the issues they own when they are in power in Washington. Americans are aware of these priorities, and they tend to name the party that places a higher priority on a particular issue as the one better able to handle that issue.
And therein lies the problem for Republican leaders seeking to claim ownership of the poverty issue: their voters aren’t particularly concerned about poverty. Every January since 1997, the Pew Research Center has asked Americans to rate a series of issues as national priorities for the upcoming year. The figure below (adapted, yes, from my book) shows the percentage difference in each party’s voters naming various issues as a “top priority” over the past two decades. Year in and year out, Democratic voters don’t just prioritize fighting poverty more than Republicans; it’s generally the issue on which Democratic enthusiasm is most likely to be higher — by 20 to 30 percentage points — than Republican enthusiasm.
This commitment gap between the two parties’ rank-and-file members will be difficult to close. To begin to do so, GOP leaders like Ryan, Rubio and Paul will need messages that appeal to one of their toughest audiences when it comes to caring about poverty: Republican voters.