New polling research out late last week shows exactly the mess that Republicans have made for themselves on taxes. A YouGov study by political scientists Gregory Huber, Conor Dowling, and Seth Hill shows a sharp divide between the way Democrats and Republicans think about tax fairness – and shows that independents side with Democrats.

The study asks people what they think a marginal rates should be for various levels of (high) income, beginning with families earning $100,000. At each level, it’s no surprise that Democrats preferred higher taxes than Republicans, with independents in each case falling in between. So neither party appears to have any advantage on the general amount of taxation, or perhaps Republicans have a slim edge. But beyond the overall level, the parties were also sharply divided on how progressive taxes should be. And here, independents are considerably closer to Democrats. So Democrats believe that marginal taxes on families earning $250,000 or $500,000 should be 8 points higher than on those earning $100,000, and independents have virtually the same preference (7 points), while Republicans want a flatter structure (3 point difference). The same was true, although it’s a closer call, for preferred taxes on families making $750,000 or $1M.

In other words, what the study found was that there’s a real divide about what constitutes “fairness.” Republicans tend to believe that fairness demands that everyone pay the same rate, while Democrats – and independents – believe that fairness requires the rich to pay more.

(From the study as presented, there’s no way to know whether Republicans differ here because people with those beliefs become Republicans, or if people who are Republicans learn to believe it. My guess is on the latter).

The dilemma for Republican politicians here is clear: their primary voters are pushing them into a position on taxes which embraces a version of fairness that few outside the GOP base share. So something such as Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan can be wildly popular among Republican voters, but electoral poison in November. Repeat across enough issues, and you wind up with a Mitt Romney, backing his way into a presidential nomination of party that doesn’t really like him very much while at the same time taking positions that could hurt him in November. For Republicans, there doesn’t appear to be any easy solution.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.