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Are Republicans Really Out of Step?

Are Republicans Really Out of Step?

By Sean Trende - August 14, 2013

This is the second of three articles posing a series of questions, querying whether the Republican Party really needs a makeover in order to win the White House again. Yesterday we saw the striking similarities between electoral outcomes and what we’d expect from chance alone, and observed how well economic change can explain electoral outcomes -- without any reference to ideology. Today we continue those questions by exploring whether the American people really view Republicans as being that out of step ideologically, and whether any move by Republicans on the presidency might simply be counterbalanced by Democratic gains down-ticket.

3) What if Republicans aren’t that out of step ideologically?

It’s almost taken as a given that the Republicans are out of step with public opinion on a wide range of issues. The party is certainly out of step with elite Washington opinion -- both Republican and Democratic elites, for that matter -- but it isn’t clear that this holds true nationally (at least in terms of perception). More importantly, it isn’t clear that the issues that inside-the-Beltway types and high-information pundits obsess about matter much to the American people.

To really get at public opinion as it relates to elections, it probably isn’t best to isolate a few issues. Rather, let’s look at some omnibus measurements of the parties. For this, I will borrow from two excellent articles from political scientist John Sides. As Sides notes, YouGov asked respondents throughout 2012 to rate themselves ideologically, and to rate the candidates ideologically as well. Note that Romney consistently polls significantly closer to the “average voter” -- at least the way the average voter perceives him- or herself -- than Obama does:


In fact, Larry Bartels has found that despite the Democratic Leadership Committee makeover of the early 1990s, Democratic candidates are viewed as slightly more liberal than they were in the 1980s, while perception of Republicans hasn’t really budged. The chart below shows how voters have described the parties on a scale of 1 to 7, with the high number being a very conservative position and the low number being very liberal, from 1968 to 2008.


Similarly, using cross-survey data to estimate how liberal or conservative the general public is, we note a distinct rightward movement throughout the Obama presidency:


This methodology doesn’t rely on self-descriptions as “conservative” or “liberal.” Instead, it looks at responses to a variety of poll questions on public opinion measures, and tries to create a composite index from those questions. Note also that “50” doesn’t mean anything in absolute terms; the point is simply to show movement in Americans’ views.

At last read, the public was more conservative than it had been in 171 of the 213 quarters tested (80 percent of the time). The country is more conservative than it was when it elected Richard Nixon (both times), Ronald Reagan in 1984, George H.W. Bush in 1988, and George W. Bush (both times).

But is the Republican Party as a whole viewed as a bunch of extremists, even if its presidential candidates are not? Here’s what the American National Election Study has found for the perceived ideological orientation of the parties over the past 40 years:


Sides explains:

Two features of this graph deserve emphasis, I think. One is how poorly the trends conform to prevailing narratives about how the parties have changed. . . . [S]econd . . . just how little change in perceptions there has been over time. The GOP is perceived to be only slightly more conservative than it was forty years ago. As of 2008, the Democratic Party was perceived to be as liberal as it was when it nominated George McGovern. As of 2012, it was perceived to be only a bit more liberal than in 1972. We can have an argument about whether the Democratic Party has shifted left or right. The point is that the public doesn’t see much of any shift.

4) What if the American people always self-correct?

I like to call this chart “spot the realignment”:


At the presidential level, we see the more-or-less constant alternation of Republican and Democratic control, complicated only by Democrats relinquishing the presidency a cycle too early in 1980. But at the sub-presidential level, we don’t really see much evidence for the “classic” re-alignment narrative: We see no movement toward the GOP in either 1968 or 1980, nor do we see emerging Democratic strength around 1992.

If anything, there’s a lurch toward the Democrats during the 1950s, when Dwight Eisenhower, the paragon of GOP moderation, was president. The 1968 and 1980 elections result in very little movement toward Republicans at the sub-presidential level. Then in 1994, we actually see a sustained shift toward the GOP.

For all the talk of the Republicans’ weaknesses, even after the disastrous 2005-to-2009 time period, they actually wound up with a showing that was about at the midpoint for the entire 1945-to-2013 series. In fact, their overall position in 2009 was stronger than it was during all but four years of the Reagan/Bush41 time series.

If you’re trying to find a pattern here, it is probably this: Parties always end up in worse shape at the end of holding the presidency than at the beginning. Whether it is House seats, Senate seats, statehouses, or governorships, the party in power almost always finds its fortunes sagging after taking control of the White House.

So even if the Republican Party were to position itself better to begin winning the presidency, it would probably find itself losing Congress and the state legislatures in relatively short order.

Coming tomorrow: Questions 5-7, and conclusions. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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