Among many Republican candidates gearing up for primaries or the November election this year, a regular talking point is opposition to Common Core – the national set of K-12 standards that have been adopted by 44 states.
While less of a surefire way to rouse activists than the Affordable Care Act, the standards have a fierce group of opponents and have started to be known as "ObamaCore" in certain circles.
Indiana recently made news by becoming the first state that had adopted Common Core standards to formally rescind that adoption, and some other red states are considering it. Republican activists tend to liken the standards to a federal takeover of education. Opponents on the left say the standards are developmentally inappropriate, especially in younger grades, and dislike the practice of tying teacher evaluations to new Common Core-linked tests.
But based on the results of at least one new poll, Republicans may want to think twice before making opposition to Common Core a key campaign point.
A national poll conducted by Republican pollster John McLaughlin, which oversampled both likely GOP primary voters and likely swing voters, found that voters – and Republican voters – aren't nearly as opposed to Common Core as some candidates seem to think, especially when they have more knowledge about what Common Core standards are.
"There’s a huge gulf between what some conservatives are saying and what regular primary voters are thinking," said Mr. McLaughlin in a call with reporters Monday to release the results.
“Ordinary Republican primary voters, which far outnumber the grass-roots activists, are generally very supportive of the standards,” added McLaughlin in a statement.
It's also clearly not as important an issue to many Republicans, and Americans overall, as grass-roots activists seem to think.
The poll found that many voters – 42 percent among all voters, and a third of Republican primary voters – still have no clue what Common Core is, and say they haven't seen, read, or heard anything about them. Among GOP primary voters, 41 percent oppose the standards and 33 percent support them.
When Common Core is explained as “a set of standards in Math and English which state what a child should know in both subjects by the end of each grade of school they complete” that "set expectations for what students should be able to achieve and compare schools from state to state," approval rises significantly.
Voters in general then say they approve Common Core by a margin of 65 percent to 29 percent. The figures are similar among swing voters, with 66 percent saying they approve and 25 percent saying they disapprove. And among GOP primary voters, the percentage who approve rises to 59 percent, compared with 35 percent who disapprove.
That approval remains even when given some of the common anti-Common Core rhetoric, tying the standards to the Obama administration.
The pollsters asked people to choose between two candidates, one who "says that Common Core State Standards are supported by 75% of teachers and will help students learn more and be better prepared when they graduate high school" and another who "says that Common Core State Standards were developed in secret by the Obama administration and are being imposed on kids without input from parents and local school boards."
Likely GOP primary voters opted for the first candidate by a 12-point margin, 48 percent to 36 percent. Among swing voters, the margin was 58 percent to 25 percent.
"The country is polarized by party right now, and that’s why Republicans have a knee-jerk reaction" to anything associated with Obama, says McLaughlin, adding that he also thinks some Common Core opponents have done a better job confusing voters as to what the standards are about.
Looking ahead to November, candidates may want to be even more careful about their rhetoric on Common Core. "The swing voters that will decide the election in November are for the standards 2 to 1," he says.
While the standards have the approval of the Obama administration – and states had to adopt them in order to be eligible for some federal grant programs - they've always enjoyed a fair amount of bipartisan backing. One of their most ardent supporters remains former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a possible presidential candidate for 2016.
But few Republicans running for office this year seem to be following Governor Bush on this, and some groups, like the conservative FreedomWorks for America, have even singled out candidates for criticism. For example, it has targeted North Carolina's Thom Tillis, a front-runner in that state's GOP Senate primary – even though he says he opposes Common Core – because he's accepted an endorsement from Bush.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican and outspoken supporter of Common Core, said in a call with reporters that the poll's findings weren't surprising to him, despite the fact that they go against commonly accepted wisdom in his party.
"Once we explain to people, this is not about curriculum ... and not about textbooks ... then people have a lot better understanding of what we're trying to do," said Governor Haslam. "When everyone understands this about high standards and helping people be ready, they understand why this is so important to our state."
The standards, Haslam adds, are outcomes focused, about preparing students for a market economy, and about accountability. "I think Common Core fits with who we [as Republicans] are."