For regular listeners of Behind Enemy Lines, you know that what you hear on the show and what you read on the website constitute a mere fraction of the political discussions that go on in our circle of BEL contributors. We regularly break Gmail (or in one case, AOL) with the amount of e-mails that we send back and forth all day, every day. One recent debate that we had was over the “base” of the Republican Party.
Who exactly is in the base?
If you ask Russ Gallo, he would say that it is voters like him. It’s the gun-toting, limited government, traditional values voters. Russ has also argued that we are losing election because we keep giving the nomination to moderates. However, Russ has also said that the base constitutes the majority of the Republican Party, and he has said that RINOs such as myself are in the minority.
It is therefore surprising that ever since 2012 GOP candidate Mitt Romney has hinted at a 2016 run, he has blown all of the other candidates out of the water in public opinion polls. According to Real Clear Politics, 20% of registered GOP voters favor Romney as their 2016 candidate. Romney even has a two-to-one advantage over Jeb Bush, who until recently, led the pack of GOP candidates.
I have heard many conservatives lament, “If only we had nominated real conservatives, we would have won the last two elections.” These are the same people who are still of the belief that far-right conservatives still constitute the largest percentage of the party. If that is true, then how are all of these so-called “RINOs” winning the nomination in the first place? I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer from Russ or any of the other conservatives who apply strict litmus tests to presidential candidates. The most common answer I have heard is that these candidates have a financial advantage. But even all the money in the world does not guarantee electoral victory. In 2008, Senator John McCain was out-raised by Romney and former NYC Rudy Giuliani, and still won the nomination. In 2012, former PA Senator Rick Santorum managed to best Romney in 11 states despite Romney outraising Santorum by 10 to 1. Therefore, we cannot say that correlation equals causation.
I return back to the question, “Who exactly is the base?”
If you were to ask me, I think the GOP base is in flux, and I think that this is a natural and entirely predictable occurrence. Only the most obstinate of conservatives would say that Generation Y has the same values as those of the Baby Boomers or even the Greatest Generation. The universal consensus among pollsters and political scientists is that the 18 – 30 age demographic is much more likely to be socially liberal, and perhaps now, more fiscally conservative. Their taste for progressivism has soured now that they have felt the impacts of liberal economic policy. In the 2014 midterm elections, 51% of millennial voters favored a GOP-controlled Congress, a shocking demographic shift considering how strongly they turned out for President Obama in 2008. As these millennial voters become more engaged in the Republican Party, they have neutralized the influence of the old-guard Republicans. The young voters of today will be the dominant voices of tomorrow, and it is unlikely that they will change their views on the policy issues that are most important to them.
Russ has often argued that polls do not mean anything in the grand scheme of electoral politics. He especially emphasizes that there is little value in a poll that is taken a year before the first presidential primary. However, I would argue that the polls that we see now have utility beyond measuring a voter's current candidate preference or being an accurate predictor of who will emerge victorious in Iowa and New Hampshire. These polls are periodic snapshots where we can take the temperature of the electorate and find out what kind of candidate they want, rather than who they want. We can infer from these polls, for example, that more than half of registered GOP voters favor an "establishment" candidate (Romney, Bush, Christie, ect.) versus the 36% who want to see an outsider (Walker, Cruz, Perry, ect.) win the nomination. And let's be honest with ourselves; the voters who like both Chris Christie AND Ted Cruz are few and far between. The aggregated polls consistently show that there is a political and electoral realignment in progress, and it has been happening over the past eight years. If this were not the case, I ask again, if the base is the dominant force in the GOP, then how did we end up with McCain and Romney as our presidential candidates?
Increasingly, there has been a movement for a “big tent” philosophy of governance within the party, in stark contrast to the calls for political purism on the far right. If we accept that generational shifts bring new ideas and values, then it is far more likely that the values of the millennials will be the new GOP base and the hardline conservatives will be the ones who find themselves on the outside of that big tent.