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The Republican Party’s rebranding problem: Rich guys

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Poli-Sci Perspective is a weekly Wonkblog feature in which Georgetown University's Dan Hopkins and George Washington University's Danny Hayes and John Sides offer an empirical perspective on the issues dominating Washington. In this edition, Sides summarizes research showing that the branding problem for the GOP is that the Republican Party is now, and long has been, associated with the interest of the rich -- and those long-entrenched views are hard to change.

In the wake of Mitt Romney’s defeat, Republicans are trying to figure out how to do better next time.  One piece of conventional wisdom is that the party should appeal to ethnic minorities, such as Latinos and Asians.  But other Republicans say this won’t be enough.  The party, it argues, needs to reorient its appeal along class lines.  As Ramesh Ponnuru recently wrote in the National Review:

The perception that the Republican party serves the interests only of the rich underlies all the demographic weaknesses that get discussed in narrower terms.

Public opinion data supports Ponnuru’s claim.  Consider this poll question: “When you think of people who are Democrats, what type of person comes to mind?”  About 38 percent of respondents selected words like “working class,” “middle class,” and “common people” while only 1 percent selected words like “rich” or “wealthy.”  The opposite was true when asked about Republicans: 31 percent picked words like “wealthy” and “business executive” while only 6 percent chose “working class” and its kindred.

Or consider a second series of poll questions.  When asked which party would be “better for” different groups, 51 percent said that Democrats were better for the poor versus 22 percent who said that of Republicans (the rest said that the parties were about the same or that they were not sure).  And 39 percent said that Democrats were better for the middle class versus 31 percent who said that of Republicans.  By contrast, most (54 percent) said that the Republicans were better for Wall Street; only 13 percent said this of Democrats.

But here is the problem for Republicans.  The first poll was from 1953.  The second was from May 2012.  Across almost 60 years of political history, Americans perceived the two major parties in remarkably similar ways.

In their book Partisan Hearts and Minds, which cites the 1953 poll, political scientists Donald Green, Bradley Palmquist and Eric Schickler argue that people tend to view parties in terms of the parties’ associations with visible social groups, like the rich and poor.  This helps account for how we choose a party to identify with; this party will, at least to some extent, comport with our own social identities, whether defined by class, race, religion or other attributes.

Because these images are so durable, a Republican Party that wants to become, as Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam advocate, a party for the working class, faces significant challenges.  Party images do not change quickly or easily.  They reflect the accretion of political agendas and actions—big and small, symbolic and substantive.

Ponnuru, for his part, knows this history—noting that the GOP was, as of the late 1960s, “associated…with big business and the country club.”  And perhaps this association is something the party can ultimately live with.   Republicans have suffered an “empathy gap” for some time—embodied in the idea of “caring about people like me” or, in Bill Clinton’s rendering, “feeling your pain.”  This hasn’t stopped Republicans from winning elections.  Indeed, it has been rare enough over the past 60-plus years for parties to control the White House for more than two terms that a country club reputation may be no hindrance to the Republicans in 2016.

But if the GOP wants to push in the direction Ponnuru suggests, it has a difficult road ahead.  People’s perceptions of the parties are difficult to change.