If every American self-described as conservative identified with the Republican Party, nearly half of all Americans would support the GOP — while barely one-quarter would back the Democrats. Yet while our political parties increasingly divide themselves along ideological lines, those line are not always straight. Indeed, according to the latest Gallup poll, more than one in five (22 percent) Democrats describe themselves as conservative.
This poll, which found that conservatives remain the largest ideological group in America, is welcome news to those of us who believe America is a center-right nation, but sobering to those of us who identify with the GOP. According to Gallup:
Forty percent of Americans describe their political views as conservative, 36 percent as moderate, and 20 percent as liberal. This marks a shift from 2005 through 2008, when moderates were tied with conservatives as the most prevalent group.
And this shift to the right has accelerated since the election of Barack Obama — ranked by National Journal in 2007 as the most liberal member of the United State Senate — along with increased, and more liberal, Democratic majorities in Congress. The poll shows clearly that their election has not succeeded in moving Americans leftward.
These numbers may show growing opposition to the president’s big-spending initiatives, but Gallup’s polling has also shown a public still wary of the GOP. According to its September poll on party identification, only 27 percent of Americans identify as Republicans, 35 percent as Democrats. Including those who lean toward one party or another, Gallup found that 42 percent of Americans favor the GOP and 48 percent favor the president’s party. Given that 27 percent of Republicans describe themselves as “moderate” or “liberal,” and assuming that percentage applies to the “leaners” as well as the identifiers, this suggests that as many as one in five conservatives neither support nor lean to the GOP.
Simply put, if Republicans wish to recapture their majorities, they need to figure out why so many conservatives continue to remain wary of the party considered the more conservative of the two. Indeed, Gallup found “the main reason the percentage of conservatives has increased nationally over the past year” has been the number of independents moving right:
The 35 percent of independents describing their views as conservative in 2009 is up from 29 percent in 2008. By contrast, among Republicans and Democrats, the percentage who are “conservative” has increased by one point each.
They’re moving right, but not moving (in any significant number) to the GOP. After eight years of a Republican president who did not hold the line on federal domestic spending, many Americans still don’t see the GOP as a fiscally conservative party. And it’s not just President George W. Bush. At least three successive Republican Congresses lost sight of the principles which helped the party, after a 40-year hiatus, regain its congressional majorities in 1994. That year, Republicans campaigned on their “Contract with America,” which included a pledge “to restore fiscal responsibility to an out-of-control Congress, requiring them to live under the same budget constraints as families and businesses.”
Gallup found increasing numbers of independents sharing a similar view, with 50 percent now believing government regulates too much, compared to 38 percent last year. (Among Republicans, the increase was similarly significant, to 70 percent from 56 percent.) And this isn’t the only issue where independents have moved to the right; they have become “more conservative on a number of specific policy issues.” They have shifted right on government and union power, the role of government relative to promoting values, gun laws, immigration, global warming, and abortion. Republicans, most of whom considered themselves ideologically conservative in 2008, have also grown more conservative on several of these issues this year, while less change is seen among Democrats.
These numbers accord with a poll Gallup conducted last month which found “a sharp increase” in the number of Americans believing “that government is taking on too much responsibility for solving the nation’s problems and is over-regulating business.” Their data showed that 57 percent of Americans say the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to businesses and individuals and 45 percent say there is too much government regulation of business. Both reflect the highest such readings in more than a decade.
The issues which animated the GOP during Reagan’s heyday and in the mid-1990s remain as relevant today as they were in the elections of 1980, 1984, 1988, and 1994. Indeed, the Democratic presidential nominee tapped into one such issue in his successful bid for the White House last fall, reminding voters in the third debate that “throughout this campaign” he had proposed “a net spending cut.”
His record in office tells a different story.
The GOP has not been nearly as successful this year in tapping into that idea as Obama was last fall or Republicans were for the better part of the last two decades of the twentieth century.
If the Gallup poll is to serve as anything more than an ideological portrait of the American electorate, Republican leaders in Washington — and across the nation — need to ask why independents are moving decidedly to the right but not moving in any significant numbers to the GOP. That said, these numbers do provide a glimmer of hope to those of us on the right who believe that a reaffirmation of the principles which animated the GOP under Ronald Reagan and in the 104th and 105th Congresses, as well as a recommitment to policies in line with those ideals, will restore the party to power.
To do that, Republicans should ignore the advice of pundits who say they should move left to survive. This latest Gallup poll shows instead that the party needs to move to the right. It won’t be enough, however, for Republicans to say they’ve learned the lesson from past electoral losses. They’re going to have to show how much they’ve learned. Adopting a new “Contract with America” would be a good start.