More interesting to me, though, was what came at the end of the poll. The pollster tried to figure out just what the base thinks its party should do now to help it win future elections. On this, the base was more split, but pretty remarkably so.
It provided them two options: focus on messaging to expand its appeal, or focus on changing voting rules to try to win with the voters it has.
Nearly half of Republicans — 47 percent — chose the latter option. Just 53 percent preferred a strategy more focused on the GOP’s message.
The first thing to emphasize is that this is an imperfect choice. Any time you provide a binary choice on something so nebulous, it’s prone to oversimplifications and perhaps false choices. Do people who prefer to focus on voting rules not also think it’s also very important to update their party’s messaging? Not necessarily. Do people who want to update the message not think there were major problems in the election that need to be addressed? Again, not necessarily.
For good measure, here is the specific question wording of the options:
- The “message”: the party needs more people to vote Republican, so it should tell the public about popular policies and ideas, and will win if more people hear about them
- The “rules”: the party already has plenty of voters, so it should push for changes to voting rules in the states and districts to ensure fairness, and will win once those changes are in place.
Even within those choices, things can be tied together in a way that people might disagree with. People who think voting rules should be the priority might disagree with the idea that this is because the party already has “plenty of voters,” for instance. (They might simply feel that strongly about voting rules.) People might otherwise agree with the idea of a message update but might balk at the implied idea that the existing message is insufficient to win (and especially if they think that message did win).
But that’s also kind of the point. Even accounting for that imperfect choice, it’s a striking finding. It has seemed valid to ask just how strongly the GOP views the “stolen” election claims; this suggests it is indeed strong enough that almost half of them think it’s sufficient to merely change the rules to win.
This is in a party that, mind you, has lost the popular vote in 7 of the past 8 presidential elections.
That history is indeed history though, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect the present-day. For all the talk about a GOP in disarray after having lost the presidency, the House and the Senate, the party remains remarkably close to being in power. The House and the Senate are both historically tight and could easily flip Republican in 2022. The GOP lost all three levers of lawmaking power, but it came within just 90,000 votes of winning all three in 2020. There is a compelling case to be made that the Republican Party truly doesn’t need to do anything about its message to win elections.
Just because you don’t need to, though, doesn’t mean that’s not the best and most strategically fruitful course. And this poll, perhaps better than any before it, reinforces just how much the “stolen” election mantra has infected the GOP base. The fact that so many of its supporters would choose changing election rules over the relatively vanilla option of improving its message to win over voters — after a very close election, not matter how you slice it! — shows how appealing the “we were robbed” message is vs. the “we lost” message.
It goes a long way toward explaining why Republican lawmakers aren’t doing more to distance themselves from former president Donald Trump. They are instead saying election laws warrant changing — not because of any evidence of widespread fraud (which doesn’t exist), but because people believe it might have taken place. It’s the one message that large portions of the base seem to agree upon. Everything else is messier.
But just because this course is easier and allows top GOP leaders to hold on to power doesn’t mean it’s truly the best strategy for the future of the party. Cheney has been arguing that Republicans are essentially forfeiting voters’ trust by continuing to comply with Trump’s “Big Lie” and that it will harm the party over the longer-term.
Nor, clearly, is it the best course for democracy to keep pointing to perceptions of irregularities and fraud rather than actual evidence, and to use the former to change the laws. Those new laws might not always be as restrictive as some opponents claim, but the impetus for them is unmistakable.
More than anything, this is a matter of what the GOP can change. Changing its message is virtually impossible with Trump looming over everything. Changing election laws is much more doable, given the degree to which the party retains control over key swing states in presidential elections, despite its recent losses.
So even in practice, it’s not an either/or. It’s just an exercise in doing what’s possible and what large portions of the base have come to desire, and hoping it comes out in the very messy wash.