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The Quest for a GOP Majority

12:01 PM, Jul 1, 2014 • By FRED BAUER
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In late June, the Pew Research Center released "Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology." Breaking the nation's voting public into seven types (plus one type that does not regularly vote), Pew aims to give a more granular perspective on the nation's body politic. Pew's political map can be a helpful tool for Republicans and conservatives looking to chart a path to a sustainable governing coalition.

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Pew outlines eight groups: Steadfast Conservatives ("socially conservative populists"); Business Conservatives ("pro-Wall Street"); Young Outsiders ("conservative views on government, not social issues"); Hard-Pressed Skeptics ("financially stressed and pessimistic"); the Next Generation Left ("young, liberal on social issues, less so on social safety net"); the Faith and Family Left ("racially diverse and religious"); Solid Liberals ("liberal across-the-board"); and the Bystanders ("young, diverse, on the sidelines of politics"). According to Pew, seven of the eight groups are involved in politics and vote, while the Bystanders do not participate in the electoral process. The Steadfast Conservatives and Business Conservatives constitute the electoral backbone of the GOP, going for Republicans with massive margins. Meanwhile, the Young Outsiders tilt Republican. Democrats only have a single type (the Solid Liberals) in which they outpoll Republicans by over 70 points, but they make up for this fact by having a broader coalition of types: they handily outperform Republicans among the Hard-Pressed Skeptics, Next Generation Left, and Faith and Family Left. And they even have the potential to fight the GOP among the lean-Republican Young Outsiders.

The following chart of the 2012 election results may overstate President Obama's 2012 support (it shows him winning by 11 when he only ended up winning by around 4), but it does suggest some interesting things about the 2012 election and a potential future path to victory for Republicans.

Assuming that this typology is reflective of reality, key to GOP success depends upon eating into Democratic numbers among some of the lean-Democratic groups while building on their success with Young Outsiders. At about 13 percent of registered voters, the Hard-Pressed Skeptics seem perhaps the Democrat-leaning bloc most open to Republican overtures, though headway could also be made among parts of the Faith and Family Left (16 percent of registered voters) and the Next Generation Left (13 percent of registered voters).

The Hard-Pressed Skeptics are the poorest of the politically involved types: 56 percent are in households that make less than $30,000 a year, and another 26 percent live in households that make between $30,000 and $75,000 a year. Sixty-seven percent say they struggle to make ends meet. Since 2008, Republicans have lost considerable ground with households making under $50,000 a year, and restoring its standing with the working and middle classes will be key for Republican renewal.

Hard-Pressed Skeptics seem open to conservative and Republican arguments about economics and the size of government. Only 15 percent trust government either most of the time or always. That number is considerably lower than the trust percentage of every other lean-Democrat type and is in line with the trust numbers of Business Conservatives and Young Outsiders. After Steadfast Conservatives, they are the type that is most hawkish on illegal immigration. Seventy-two percent of Hard-Pressed Skeptics believe that government is always wasteful and inefficient, and 66 percent believe that government regulation of business does more harm than good. On taxes, the Hard-Pressed Skeptics are the most hostile to raising taxes. Seventy-eight percent of Skeptics—higher even than the two Conservative type—would vote against any candidate who voted to raise taxes.

Fifty-two percent of Hard-Pressed Skeptics are constitutional originalists (a percentage only exceeded by the two Conservative blocs). Sixty-seven percent of Skeptics think that children are better off with a parent at home with them rather than having both parents working, and 51 percent think that society is improved if people place a priority on marriage and children (18 percent of Solid Liberals feel the same way). A plurality of 48 percent believe that abortion should be illegal in every case or almost all cases.

On President Obama and Obamacare, Hard-Pressed Skeptics are, well, skeptical. Fifty-three disapprove of Obamacare, and only 44 percent approve of the job the president is doing.

This would seem a group ripe for Republican picking. And yet the GOP has a favorability rating of only 32 percent among Hard-Pressed Skeptics (the Democratic Party has a 46 percent favorability rating). Skeptics went overwhelmingly for President Obama in 2012, and they currently lean 51-37 for Democrats in 2014. The Democratic advantage has been cut substantially, but more headway could be made (especially in a presidential election year).

Some of the Republican struggle with this group can be traced to the fact that Skeptics do not only have doubts about President Obama: they also doubt the GOP's concern for their economic situation. Just 26 percent of Skeptics think that Republicans care about the middle class; only Solid Liberals are even more likely to believe that Republicans are indifferent to the economic middle. Moreover, despite their doubts about government, Hard-Pressed Skeptics support policies that they think will help the poor and struggling. Sixty-six percent want increased government action to help the needy—even if that action leads to more debt. Seventy-one percent think that government benefits do not go far enough. So there seems some tension there between the desires of Skeptics, who are open to more government spending, and both types of Conservatives and Young Outsiders, who are more resistant to increased spending.

Republicans also have potential for making inroads among the Faith and Family Left, especially on social issues. This group is strongly anti-abortion, and 64 percent think that society is improved by individuals prioritizing marriage and children. The Faith and Family Left places a heavy emphasis on religion as grounding morality. Though it is more supportive of government programs than many Hard-Pressed Skeptics (supporting Obamacare, for instance), the Faith and Family Left looks like it could be open to a pro-growth message. This is an optimistic group, which believes that the U.S. can solve its problems and hopes for better days in the future. The diminished expectations of the so-called "new normal" might not be enough for them. With 65 percent of the Faith and Family Left opposing candidates who support tax increases, this type has about the Outsiders' resistance to tax hikes.

Republicans can gain support from some of key components of the Democratic coalition. While Hard-Pressed Skeptics seem as though they could be most open to Republicans, the Faith and Family Left is out of step with leftist ideology on some key issues. And even some in the Next Generation Left, who are skeptical about government intervention in the marketplace, could be won over by a market-oriented, pluralist conservatism.

Expanding the Republican coalition (in part by targeting these groups) need not entail a selling out of conservative principles. Instead, this expansion involves applying these principles in new—and sometimes quite old—ways in order to explain to the American public how conservative ideas can improve the lives of Americans. This explanation might include an economic component, but it would not just focus on dollars and cents; it would make a moral case for defending freedom and celebrate the broader cultural riches that be enjoyed in a free society. Moral purposiveness is one of the key building blocks for any enduring political coalition, and an attention to the ethical stakes of politics could be especially helpful in winning over members of the Faith and Family Left.

A key part of this enterprise of political persuasion involves taking account of contemporary facts and grounding these facts in a deeper discourse of principles. President Obama's administration has offered a narrative of social and economic uplift through the ministrations of a centralized and technocratic bureaucracy. That was the vision of the (failed) stimulus. That is the vision of Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, and much else of the president's policies (including energy, infrastructure, and education). In order to counter this narrative and appeal to Hard-Pressed Skeptics and other uneasy members of the Democratic coalition, Republicans might argue not that a vision of social and economic improvement is flawed but that the current policies of bureaucratic progressivism fail to achieve or even actively undermine that vision.

Republicans could offer an alternative narrative of market-oriented uplift, in which decentralization, economic growth, and a vibrant, multifaceted civic space encourage a broad pursuit of happiness. They might note that massive bureaucracies can often become of a tool of enriching the powerful rather than leveling the playing field (as Too Big to Fail potentially demonstrates, for instance). By warning about the potential for government bureaucracies to facilitate favoritism and corruption, Republicans could appeal to the skepticism of Outsiders, Skeptics, and even some of the Next Generation Left. Furthermore, by attending to the possible injustice of this favoritism and corruption, they can also reach out to the economic and social-justice concerns of the Skeptics and Faith and Family Left. In contrast to present stagnation, Republicans could make a case for a dynamic economy, in which economic gains are not reserved for the few.

In their approach to the role of government, Republicans might put forward the idea that government can be a legitimate actor but that it is also an actor about which we should be skeptical. Rather than denunciations of government as an endless font of evil, conservatives might instead advance the traditional American viewpoint that the government should be rigorously held to account. Many in the center believe that government does have a purpose, but they also worry about government becoming unmoored from its constitutional foundations and becoming a tool for a self-dealing, self-perpetuating elite. A Republican case for limited government can be allied to a case for effective government: Placing limitations upon a government may make it most effective in its role of protecting fundamental rights and advancing the public good. 

Two of the types that Republicans most need to improve their standing with (Outsiders and Skeptics) are skeptical about Wall Street, and the GOP can channel this skepticism not through class warfare but instead by making a case for financial reform that advances both the principles of the market and the interests of the economic middle. The economic concerns of Skeptics and others could partly be met by advancing a pro-worker set of immigration policies. The hollowing out of the nation's manufacturing base has likely caused particular pain for members of the Hard-Pressed Skeptics—who, along with Steadfast Conservatives, are the types most skeptical about purported "free trade" agreements—so a rethinking of trade policy might be in order.  

GOP approaches to health care will likely need to go beyond attacking Obamacare and will instead need to offer at least an outline of ways to improve the health-care system. The middle might agree with the GOP that Obamacare is flawed, but Republicans still need to show that they are capable of addressing the real concerns of the working and middle classes. Republicans might counter the Obama administration's big-bureaucracy approach to education by instead emphasizing the values of educational pluralism and localism and a sense of educational achievement beyond standardized test scores. A more pro-family tax policy might bring in both Skeptics and members of the Faith and Family Left. Though the types in the Democratic coalition are mostly supportive of developing alternative energy sources, they also (with the exception of the Solid Liberals) support the Keystone Pipeline. A defense of an affordable energy policy could win over some members of the Democratic coalition, especially Skeptics, who have much to lose from escalating energy prices.

Republicans need not totally ignore social issues or surrender these issues to the ideological left. Hard-pressed Skeptics and the Faith and Family Left have significant doubts about some of the social and ethical teachings of ideological leftism. Key in Republican and conservative discussions of social issues would be to approach these issues in non-polarizing yet principled ways. An outright defense of public tolerance and pluralism might be especially effective in response to an increasing purge-happy far left. Against those trying to shut down debate about key ethical questions, conservatives could argue for a public discourse that respects the seriousness of these moral considerations and finds that political tolerance is one of the major tools for maintaining a free society.

Pew's typology suggests a path forward for a governing coalition if Republicans are nimble and imaginative enough in both their messaging and their policy positions. Sluggish economic growth, a drumbeat of scandals, and a fear of an unraveling of the social compact have made many Americans open to an alternative narrative of political life. The coalition that brought President Obama to power and returned him to office in 2012 remains a fractious one.

In the wake of Mitt Romney's loss, an increasing number of Republicans and conservatives have focused on how to make conservatism responsive to middle-class concerns. The YG Network's recent collection on conservative reform, Room to Grow, exemplifies some of the developments along those lines in the policy sphere, and a number of Republican politicians, including Utah's Mike Lee and Alabama's Jeff Sessions, have advanced a message combining conservative principles and attention to the economic middle. Pew's political typology suggests that a market-oriented defense of the middle class could have significant electoral dividends.

The point of conservative policy innovation would not be simply to create a slicker message to sell to the electorate; it would be to put forward a set of polices in accord with central ethical and civic principles in order to improve human lives, advance the prospects of freedom, and realize some of the central aspirations of the American republic. Conservatives have much to gain from arguing on behalf of government policies that reinforce the broader civic culture and institutions helpful for sustaining a free and prosperous society. Rather than redistribution to lessen the burdens of long-term stagnation, Republicans could offer a vision of opportunity and growth. Instead of class warfare (of which makers vs. takers is one variant), Republicans could call for a vision of civic pluralism, which celebrates the diversity of human virtues and accomplishments while also acknowledging some essential equality and common dignity. In addressing the concerns of the American electorate, Republicans and conservatives could simultaneously expand their political coalition, enrich their thinking about central philosophical principles, and put forward policies that have great potential for improving the lives of Americans. 

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