After ignoring a couple of useless polls about GOP rank-and-file interest in nonspecific “change,” I was happy to dig into a new Pew survey that shows the rightward pressure on Republican leaders that’s now been part of the landscape since at least 2008.
Now it’s important to note two things about the survey right off the bat. First, it includes Republican “leaners,” who probably boost the number of self-identified “moderates” in the survey, and also the number of those who don’t regularly participate in Republican primaries. And second, when it asks Republicans what direction they want the party to take, it’s not always clear how they perceive the party’s current direction.
If, like me, you think the GOP has been on a fairly steady ideological bender from the moment John McCain started getting heckled on the 2008 campaign trail for not being vicious enough, then the fact that a 54/40 majority of the rank-and-file want their party to “move in a more conservative direction” is more than a little alarming. Similarly, the finding that 35% of Republicans believe party leaders have “compromised too much” with Democrats while another 32% think they have “handled it about right” takes on an entirely different complexion if you feel, as I do, that GOPers in Washington are achieving historic levels of mindless obstructionism. On specific issues, the assumption that current Republicans positions are already pretty extreme means 60% of Republicans want to stay that way or get more extreme on abortion; 75% feel that way about immigration; 87% on government spending; and 79% on guns. But I am sure some pundits will look at the same numbers and say that with the exception of “government spending” and perhaps immigration, roughly equal numbers want the party to move left or right. It’s all about how you view the status quo. On immigration, there is a legitimate reason to wonder which “party leaders” poll respondents have in mind in urging them to become more conservative. Even in the Senate, we sometimes forget, Republicans voted against the Gang of Eight bill by a 32-14 margin.
In any event, there’s not much comfort in this poll for those who are looking for signs that the “fever is breaking.” Yes, there’s less rank-and-file identification with the Tea Party than there was in 2010, but since there is very little actual disagreement (only 11% of Republicans in this poll) with the Tea Folk, that may simply reflect the belief of some that the Tea Party is the Republican Party. Since some observers are already looking at Chris Christie as a potential fever-breaker, it’s notable that in this poll his standing is a lot iffier than that of other named potential ’16ers (a favorable/unfavorable ratio of 47/30, which, as TNR’s Nate Cohn points out, is worse than Mitt Romney ever performed in a similar poll during his high-wire run to the GOP nomination). If, as we have every reason to expect based on turnout patterns and the ’14 landscape, Republicans have a non-disastrous midterm cycle, there’s no reason to believe Republicans are going to demand massive changes in messaging or strategy, and every reason to suspect those most adamant for change will mainly want a more feverous party.