Are GOP voters more willing to fight than Democrats?

To GOP hard-liners in the House, Speaker John Boehner hasn't fought hard enough against President Obama's legislative priorities. How do Republican voters feel about toughness versus talk?

Jim Cole/AP
Voters listen as Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida speaks during a campaign stop at Robie's Country Store Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, in Hooksett, N.H.

House conservatives have long groused that Speaker John Boehner hasn’t fought hard enough against President Obama’s legislative priorities. Their enmity on this issue is a big reason Representative Boehner finally said “enough” and is quitting his job.

To these GOP hard-liners, the word “compromise” denotes weakness. They think Boehner is a squish and a RINO (Republican in name only).

“Boehner promised to fight Barack Obama, defund Obamacare, and stop amnesty. Instead, he enabled Obama, gave him a blank check, and was too scared to ever fight,” writes prominent conservative commentator Erick Erickson at the right-leaning RedState site.

Do Republican voters feel the same way, in general, about the relative merits of toughness versus talk? Are House conservatives reflective of their grass roots in this instance?

Well, not exactly – GOP voters are split on this question. But they are much more likely to be combative than Democratic counterparts. Perhaps that’s largely why some of the party’s 2016 hopefuls, such as Sen. Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, and Sen. Marco Rubio, are pushing for the GOP-controlled Congress to stand firm on stripping Planned Parenthood funding from coming budget bills, even if it results in a government shutdown.

Does this mean the Republican Party is the party of pugnacity, more so than the Democrats? Some left-leaning pundits argue that it does.

“If those GOP candidates pushing for maximum confrontation think it might endear them to GOP voters who want candidates to stand on principle rather than compromise, they might be on to something,” writes Greg Sargent at The Washington Post’s left-leaning "Plum Line" blog.

A just-released NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey has the numbers. Pollsters asked self-described Republicans and Democrats a fairly detailed question: If the choice in the GOP or Democratic primaries comes down to a candidate who will make compromises to gain consensus on legislation to get things done, or a candidate who will stick to his or her positions even if this means consensus becomes impossible, whom would they pick?

Among Republicans, 49 percent said they wanted a candidate who will stick to positions, and 48 percent said they preferred a candidate who is willing to compromise. Among Democrats, the results were much different: Sixty percent said they preferred a candidate inclined to compromise, and 35 percent said they wanted a candidate to stick to his or her beliefs.

(As for Boehner himself, he’s not very popular with Republicans, according to the NBC/WSJ results. Seventy-two percent said they were “dissatisfied” with his ability to achieve party goals.)

Older polls show a similar split between the parties on eagerness to fight. Gallup, for instance, has asked the fight-versus-compromise question at least four times since 2011. The results for Republicans show that the GOP is indeed evenly split between voters who want to compromise and those who want to stick to their beliefs. Democrats consistently express a compromise preference.

However, the questions here are general, about abstract compromise and undefined principles. The responses might change if the questions were more specific, or if the political context were different. With Mr. Obama in the White House since 2009, “compromise” might be a code word for “watered-down Democratic priority,” at least to Republican voters.

RealClearPolitics polling analyst Sean Trende pointed this out in a Tuesday tweet.

“So if there’s a R POTUS, D Senate, Ds will be stoked to cut [Planned Parenthood] funding in half, right? Defining ‘compromise’ matters.”

In the face of an actual government shutdown, Republican attitudes on this question have changed in the past, according to Gallup data. In late 2012, for example, as the so-called fiscal-cliff crisis approached, 67 percent of Republican voters said officials should compromise to reach an agreement, as opposed to 24 percent who said the GOP should stick to its guns.

That was only a few points off the Democratic numbers. With an actual crisis looming, voters of both parties felt about the same.

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