Politics & Policy

Charting the Political Landscape

The GOP needs to pick its spots in opposing Obama's agenda.

Given the GOP’s eviction into the political wilderness, Republicans must now map a route back to power. To do so, my firm, TargetPoint Consulting, conducted a national post-election survey of 1,024 registered voters, assessing where the electorate stands on those issues most likely to be a part of the Obama administration’s legislative and political agenda.

The survey, which we conducted as an independent research project at our own expense, was fielded November 20-24 via the Internet using YouGov/Polimetrix’s PollingPoint panel, and has a margin of sampling error of +/-3 percent. You’ll find some of our findings below and by following the links provided.

ARE WE STILL A CENTER-RIGHT NATION?

We sought first to deal with the question of ideology. Does Barack Obama’s election reveal an actual leftward drift in American ideals, or are we still a center-right nation–albeit one that grew weary of Republican representation?

To capture the electorate’s ideological leanings, we asked two questions, one on fiscal issues (e.g., taxes, spending, and balanced budgets) and the other on social issues (e.g., abortion and gay marriage). In this chart, you can see the proportions of overall conservatives, moderates, and liberals, along with the party they most identify with.

While we are in fact a center-right nation, it is too little acknowledged just how large that “center” is. Nearly half (48 percent) of the country are moderates on both fiscal and social issues, or are ideologically conflicted. Another 36 percent are both fiscal and social conservatives, while only 16 percent self-identify as both fiscal and social liberals.

Only 16 percent of those in the center identify as Republican, as opposed to 40 percent Democrat and 44 percent independent. John McCain mustered only 28 percent of the center’s vote–and while it is not necessary that Republicans outright win the center to win elections, at least 38 to 40 percent is necessary to remain competitive.

So while Republicans have a respectable hold on the Right (62 percent of core conservatives identify as Republican, and 89 percent voted for McCain), we are completely adrift in the center. The Grand Old Party has ceded the center–nearly half of this country–to the Democrats, leaving itself a party of only the Right in a center-right nation.

The fix, however, is not necessarily moderation. Indeed, mainstream Republicanism generally aligns with the center-right electorate. Rather, it is probably the tone, tenor, and volume of our messaging that has alienated the center. We should therefore first modernize our message, and only then look at opportunities for moderation with minimal base defection.

WHO REPRESENTS THE MIDDLE CLASS?

Republicans must acknowledge another stark reality of the 2008 election: We have lost the middle-class voter. Not only did we lose their votes, we have lost any meaningful, credible connection we once had with the middle class, effectively relinquishing it to the Democratic party.

We base this upon a series of open-ended questions probing what voters liked most and least about each of the parties. Here’s a word cloud of what people said when asked what they liked best about the Democratic party (the biggest words came up the most). The most frequent words are “middle class,” “help,” “working class,” and “care” (used both in “health care” and that Democrats “care” more about the middle class).

Here is one verbatim response from an independent centrist: “The Democratic Party seems to be interested in helping the middle and lower class people rather than continuing to boost the richer upper class.”

Only one respondent in our sample of over 1,000 mentioned middle-class advocacy in connection with the Republican party.

THE OBAMA AGENDA

There is no better place to reclaim the center-right voter and the middle class than in our response to an ambitious agenda by an extremely popular incoming president. To that end, Republicans can balance the Obama agenda in three ways: by working with him on bipartisan issues, by compromising to make bills better, and by taking bold stands of opposition to beatable bills. The question is, which issues fall into which category?

Our research provides some direction. We showed respondents statements outlining nearly 40 different legislative items, actions, and outcomes. For each one we asked two questions: Do you approve or disapprove of this (0-10 scale), and how likely do you think this is to happen (0 meaning “not at all likely” and 10 meaning “extremely likely”)?

We can then plot each issue on a Cartesian graph, categorizing the responses as hopes (the respondent approves of the item and think it’ll happen), dreams (approves, but thinks it unlikely), fears (disapproves but thinks it likely), and anxieties (disapproves and thinks unlikely). The dotted lines indicate responses we classify as “extreme.”

Of the issues we tested and graphed, many were hopes and fears, with only a handful of dreams.

Next, we zoom in on our nation’s Hopes and Fears, identifying a handful of issues that fall into the “extreme” categories. Americans are extremely hopeful about “expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, to allow the government to provide more children with healthcare,” “increasing the use of diplomacy in the war on terror,” and “protecting a woman’s right to choose.” Voters are extremely fearful of “expansion of affirmative action programs,” “the expansion of welfare programs,” “providing government loans and financial aid to the auto industry to prevent bankruptcy and job loss,” “providing financial aid and loans to banks and financial companies to stabilize the economy,” and “making it easier for unions to organize by eliminating secret ballots in union elections.”

The dreams are mostly “conservative” ones, with the exception of the capture of Osama bin Laden, a dream shared by most of the electorate: The nation approves of a wall on the Mexican border and increased military spending, but is skeptical of their likelihood; new nuclear plants have high approval, though their precondition, Yucca Mountain, is much more controversial.

THE PARTY BREAKDOWN

Next, we focus on the same plots by partisanship–looking first at independents, the partisan group most similar to the national electorate. In fact, there is only one difference: Card check no longer qualifies as an extreme fear, though it is still decisively in the fear category for independent voters.

Also, note the position of national health care: in the fear quadrant, though only by a hair. Independent reaction here is incredibly mixed, averaging out to a fear.

Republicans are filled with fears of the Obama agenda, but before we consider them, we must attend to two intraparty caution flags: “Penalizing companies that send jobs overseas” and “increasing barriers and restrictions on trade with foreign countries” are both identified as hopes.

There has always been a protectionist, America-first streak in the Republican party, although free-traders have typically won out politically. Our survey data indicate this may no longer be the case, and free-trade advocates should be worried.

As for fears, the extreme ones from the national grid reappear, as do a number of fine candidates for principled GOP opposition in the 111th Congress: “Ensuring the civil liberties of terror suspects by trying them in civilian courts instead of military ones,” “the closure of the US detention center at Guantanamo Bay,” “making it harder to legally purchase and use firearms,” and “restricting oil and gas exploration in Alaska and off the US coast.”

Consider also items that are close to the hopes quadrant, indicating that the base appears to be warming up to them (or perhaps resigning itself to their inevitability): “requiring electric power companies to switch from oil and coal to wind, solar, and other alternative power,” “passing a major economic stimulus package,” and SCHIP expansion.

Finally, Democrats are bullish about nearly everything–even capturing Osama bin Laden. Still, underneath this sometimes irrational exuberance, we see the pressure Barack Obama can expect from the Left: “the appointment of more moderate and progressive judges in the federal courts,” “increased government funding of stem cell research,” “increasing regulations on American business corporations,” tax increases for the rich, and the closure of Guantánamo Bay.

Beyond that, there are some interesting instances of indifference. National health care lies outside the extreme box, though not for lack of approval; even Democrats are hesitant to say that reform is very likely to happen. On card check, both approval and likelihood are low, indicating hesitation among Democrats about this legislation.

MOVING FORWARD

These results suggest that Republicans should put certain items into the aforementioned “cooperate,” “compromise,” and “strongly oppose” boxes.

We should cooperate on SCHIP. It is an extreme national hope, with both Democrats and independents approving of it and deeming it very likely to occur. Republicans are lukewarm to it and resigned to its passage. Unfortunately, its inevitability may only embolden Republicans to take a principled stand against it, as it “won’t cost them anything.” In reality, it would. No matter how loudly we shout “Tax Increase!” or “Welfare!” or “Slippery Slope!” each no vote will only be seen as a vote against kids and against the middle class.

We should force a hard compromise on health-care reform. Republicans loathe it; independents–though they want it–are wary of it; and Democrats are not all that convinced it will actually happen.

And we should stand up to card check. Nationally, there is great fear of this legislation, with independents and Republicans alike deeply concerned. Even Democratic support is fractured and hesitant. Furthermore, the debate over the auto bailout has placed the relationship between Democrats, President-elect Obama, and organized labor under the microscope. Taken all together, this represents an ideal opportunity to please the base, appeal to independents, and call out Democratic attempts to overreach.

Even then, above and beyond the Obama agenda, there is much more to think about as we chart our course forward. Consider just a handful of remaining questions that were also tested in this study: What is the ideology of the center, and where do they stand on these issues? What is it the electorate likes most and least about the Republican party? How does that vary by partisanship? Should the GOP become more conservative or more moderate? Are there independents who want a more conservative party?

The next few months are critical to the long-term viability of the Republican party. How the GOP responds to the Obama agenda will largely dictate its ability to recover in 2010, 2012, and onward. We now face a new year, a new president, a new Congress, and a radically reoriented political landscape. Here’s hoping that the Right has some sense of how to navigate this new world.

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