2016 GOP Contenders Play to Their Base – But Risk Losing Moderate Voters

Conservative stances on immigration, climate change and Obamacare could cost Republicans next November.

As the contest for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination begins in earnest, candidates are working hard to win the conservative voters who disproportionately influence the GOP primaries.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, for example, recently downplayed the backlash over Indiana’s “religious freedom” law, blaming media “hype and hysteria.” Senator Ted Cruz, in the meantime, has continued to get play for his denial of climate change, while Senator Marco Rubio is making headlines for his unrelenting criticism of the newly reached nuclear deal with Iran.

But while these resolutely conservative stances might play well in the primaries, they risk turning off the voters who actually matter most in the general election: moderates.

In 2012, according to national exit polls, a plurality of voters (41 percent) labeled themselves “politically moderate,” while 25 percent considered themselves to be liberal, and 35 percent said they are conservative – proportions that have stayed roughly stable for several decades. Assuming these proportions remain consistent and that the next Democratic and Republican nominees perform as well with their respective bases as did Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee will need to win at least 49 percent of moderates to win the general election. (Romney won just 41 percent of moderates in 2012.)

So far, however, leading GOP contenders don’t appear to be taking positions that are consistent with moderates’ viewpoints on key topics.

In a recent national poll, the Washington Post surveyed likely voters on key issues such as the importance of bipartisanship, Obamacare, climate change, the nuclear deal with Iran, and immigration. Although responses from liberals and conservatives were fairly predictable on most of these questions, how moderates feel on these topics is especially noteworthy.

A super-majority (64 percent) of moderates, for example, say they would favor a candidate who mainly “tries to compromise” with the other political party, versus someone who “mainly stands up for his or her side.”

And in a potential rebuke to the climate denial strategy of Sen. Cruz, 68 percent of moderates say they favor “government action to address climate change.” 53 percent of moderates also say they support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants – in contrast to the stated views of the Tea Party – while 55 percent of moderates support a “negotiated agreement with Iran” – in contrast to Sen. Rubio.

All else equal, would you like the next president to be someone who….

  All Americans Moderates
Mainly tries to compromise with the other political party, or mainly stands up for his or her side? Compromises 58% 64%
Stands with side 37% 34%
Wants to keep the federal health care law, or wants to repeal it? Keep 49% 52%
Repeal 45% 42%
Favors government action to address climate change, or opposes such action? Favors 59% 68%
Opposes 31% 23%
Favors a negotiated agreement with Iran, or opposes it? Favors 49% 55%
Opposes 42% 37%
Supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, or who opposes it? Supports 51% 53%
Opposes 45% 42%
Source: Washington Post

So what do these trends among moderate voters mean as we head further towards the 2016 election? Ultimately, Republican candidates need to take the long view of their campaign strategies, with platforms that are closer to the ideological center and more attractive to moderate voters. Ultraconservative stances, although helpful in the primaries, are a short game strategy that will eventually make the task any Republican candidate is facing even more daunting. Current trends, however, portend a different result: A self-inflicted disadvantage for Republicans as they head into 2016 and an even stronger hand for Hillary Clinton, assuming she remains the sole potential Democratic nominee.

So long as she avoids a true fight for the nomination from the left, Clinton will have the luxury to focus on moderate voters and remind them that majorities of this group side with her on issues from health care to immigration. Clinton will enter the race with a built in advantage, and her ability to focus on the long game right off the bat increases her odds of success.

But for Republicans, the biggest obstacle on the road to the White House might be their own base.

[Cross-posted at Republic 3.0]

Stefan Hankin

Stefan Hankin is the President of Lincoln Park Strategies, a public opinion research firm based in Washington, D.C.