Win Independent Votes by Neglecting Social Cons? Bad Strategy

Recently, controversy emerged within conservative and Republican circles when Mitch Daniels, and more recently Haley Barbour, suggested that we declare a “truce” on social issues. Instantly the battle lines were drawn between social conservatives, who don’t want to see their issues sidelined and forgotten, and fiscal conservatives, who believe that we need to focus on the economy and health care as the big issues of the day.

Daniels and Barbour are perhaps merely being pragmatic. Both of these men are socially conservative. They both are all-around movement conservatives who have made very positive contributions to both their states and their party by their service in office. However, their calls for a truce on social issues are a strategic mistake.

I understand the desire for pragmatism regarding the issues that conservatives focus on in this election season. Indeed, I share that same pragmatism. I agree that jobs, the economy, health care, and the deficit need to be the things that Republicans primarily talk about. Not the only things, to be sure, but these acute issues of concern need to be the “drivers” of our talking points and agenda items this season.

The problem with what Daniels and Barbour have said arises from the fact that, while I do not think they personally intend for social conservatives to be tossed off the bus, their statements provide ammunition to those who do. There are indeed those on the right who would love nothing more than to shut social conservatives up once and for all, and turn the Republican Party into a scaled-up version of the libertarians.

(You should have seen how some of these concern trolls flipped out when an early leak about the Republican “Pledge to America” suggested that it might have one point which affirmed the Republican commitment to conservative positions on some social issues, along with its many points addressing fiscal issues).

The arguments advanced in favor of silencing the social aspect of conservatism are not good ones. It is argued that the Republicans need to keep silent on social issues because not doing so will alienate crucial independents who are needed for victory in November.

Is that so?

“Independent” is a nebulous term. To whom does it refer? To those who are not affiliated with a party, or at least with a major party? Fine, but that definition is still nebulous. “Independents” are not a monolithic bloc of people who all vote one way and who are all concerned about the same things in the same proportions.

Indeed, many people who are independents left the GOP because it was becoming too liberal, both fiscally and socially. Many left the GOP because it was perceived as not conservative enough on social issues. There are independents who don’t like conservative stances on social issues, and there are also independents who don’t like conservative stances on fiscal issues, either.

There are independents of every shape and stripe. We can’t appeal to all of them, even with only fiscal arguments. Trying to is a fool’s errand.

Examining the “independents” who are currently joining with Republicans to oppose the Obama/Pelosi/Reid agenda -- the “independents” whom we can and do appeal to -- reveals people who are generally of the same stripe as the Republican rank-and-file. This makes sense, since the people to whom Tea Party and Republican ideas are going to appeal are going to be mostly the 40% who label themselves conservatives -- many of whom are not affiliated with a party -- along with the right side of the “moderates” group.

Indeed, polling tells us that the Tea Partiers who are driving this new wave of conservative activism are not as broad-spectrum as we’re often told. While only 44-49% of Tea Partiers identify with the Republican Party initially, it has been found that when pushed to name a preference, 83-88% of Tea Partiers identify with the GOP. Only around 10% of these folks are Democrats, and single digits identified as true independents.