Some pundits have written off the GOP as a dying force in American politics, but such obituaries are premature.
If Republicans continue to pander to the extreme right wing of the party, they may indeed go the way of the dinosaurs. But a GOP resurgence is still possible. When they return from their August recess, Republicans need to regroup, 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.
Some of the nastiest battles of late have not been between the two parties but within one political camp: Republicans are at war with one another. Although the exact names on the roster vary slightly with each issue, Republican factions in the House and Senate have been battling over issues ranging from National Security Agency surveillance programs to immigration reform to foreign policy to tactical plans for fighting Obamacare.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky have captured plenty of headlines, trading insults as they battle for the spotlight and possibly the coveted position of 2016 presidential frontrunner.
The recent Republican skirmishes highlight recurring themes: tea party activists vs. traditional Republicans; newcomers to Washington vs. seasoned veterans; legislators who oppose any form of compromise vs. those who want to work with the system.
Internal disagreement is common for an out-party (the party not in the White House) especially one that is still licking its wounds from losing a second presidential election in a row. But the political infighting creates unnecessary spectacle and keeps party leaders – and followers – playing defense. It also prevents them from building a winning coalition for the next few elections.
Instead of grabbing headlines as they fight each other over tactics, Republicans should be carefully planning a way to restore their brand and regain their position as a broad-based national party. Rebuilding will take time, and Republicans need to reconnect with voters before the next election season thrusts into high gear.
The best way to begin the process is to reorient efforts away from the party’s fringe and appeal instead to the party’s natural base, the conservatives and conservative-leaning moderates who represent a majority of the American electorate.
Republicans have spent too much time focusing on the far-right edge of their coalition, alienating many mainstream conservatives and swing voters. Tea party activists have made a lot of noise and even spoiled some elections. But at the end of the day, an angry anti-government faction is not the foundation on which to build a broad-based national party.
Instead of placating the activists with the shrillest voices, party leaders need to find new ways to reach out to disaffected conservatives and moderates who are longing for a political home. Ultimately politics is a numbers game, and the numbers suggest there is ample space for a center-right resurgence.
A singular focus on Republican losses in the last two presidential elections deflects attention from the fact that Republicans are faring much better at the state level. Republicans hold 30 state governorships and have unified party control of state legislatures in 23 states, while the Democrats control 13 state legislatures.
Polling data show that party leaders have room to build on these successes at the state level. Both parties must reach out to moderates and independents to build winning electoral coalitions, but Republicans have a numerical advantage.
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.
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.