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Opinion

GOP isn't dying, but it will have to reach moderate voters to survive

Obituaries for the GOP are premature. But Republicans must reconnect with their base, move away from far-right fringe elements, and reach out to moderates and independents to re-establish themselves as a broad-based national party. The good news: The numbers are on their side.

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Gallup surveys throughout the year ask respondents to describe their political views, and Gallup publishes annual averages of the results. An individual poll provides a quick snapshot of what one group thinks on a given day; compilations of data even out sampling error and provide a clearer picture of longer-term trends.

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In 2011, the most recent year Gallup has published its annual summary of ideology responses, 40 percent of adults described themselves as conservative, another 35 percent said they were moderate, and only 21 percent said they were liberal.

These numbers are nothing new. Since Gallup started asking this question in 1992, ideological conservatives have outnumbered liberals almost 2 to 1, and a vast majority of respondents (between 75 percent and 80 percent) have identified as conservative or moderate.

Broad-based parties cannot rely exclusively on one ideological wing. Republican and Democratic strategists know they must reach out to political independents to build a winning coalition. Here again Republicans have the advantage. The ideological profile of political independents in Gallup’s annual compilations looks much like national samples of adults: 41 percent moderate, 36 percent conservative, and 19 percent liberal.

Gallup asks respondents if they are “very conservative,” “conservative,”  “moderate,” “liberal,” or “very liberal.” Relatively small percentages choose the extremes: 10 percent of US adults report they are very conservative; 6 percent say they are very liberal.

So while the Republican party includes a distinct right wing, it is far from a substantial base. A majority (53 percent) of self-identified Republicans, those most loyal to the party, say they are conservative, and moderates edge out those who are very conservative 23 percent to 20 percent.

 Although underlying ideology has remained relatively stable for two decades, results from a May 2013 Gallup poll suggest Americans may be moderating slightly on social issues.

The survey found that more Americans identify as conservative or very conservative (41 percent) on economic issues, while only 19 percent were liberal or very liberal, and 32 percent identified as moderate. On social issues, however, the differences are much narrower: Thirty-five percent said they were very conservative or conservative, 32 percent were moderate, and 30 percent were liberal or very liberal.

Since May 2003, the percentage of social liberals has increased seven points while social conservatives decreased two points.

Polling data reveal a strong center-right coalition. Voters are conservative but moderating. Even if Republicans lose some support from their far-right wing, they still have ample room to rebuild the party.

In the meantime, Republicans need to be strategic. With Democrats in control of the presidency and the Senate, House Republicans have very few realistic options to propose changes that will become law.

Republicans should serve as a much-needed check on Democratic excesses and stand their ground against legislation that moves the country in the wrong direction. But doing nothing maintains the status quo. Even in this tense political climate, some opportunities will arise to nudge the nation back on track. On at least a few issues – immigration, scaling back parts of Obamacare – Republicans can find room to work with Democrats and seek opportunities for compromise.

If they succeed, Republicans can share credit for legislative victories and remind voters that they can still be a force for positive change.

Amy E. Black is associate professor of political science at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill.

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