Buried in Pew’s new survey of Americans’ religious attitudes (Public Sees Religion’s Influence Waning, pp. 20-26) are some important data on differences between Republicans and Democrats. Heading into the midterm elections, more Republican voters disapprove of their party’s stands than approve, while more Democratic voters approve of their party’s stands than disapprove. No less significantly, most disapproving Republicans believe their party is too moderate, while most disapproving Democrats think their party is not moderate enough.
On government spending and illegal immigration, large majorities of Republicans say their party does not do a good job representing their views: 60 percent to 35 percent and 56 percent to 37 percent respectively. On government spending, the disapprovers think the GOP is too liberal (versus too conservative) by a margin of six to one (48-8); on illegal immigration, the too-liberal margin is nearly two to one (33-18).
By contrast, narrow pluralities of Democrats say their party does a good job representing them on those issues: 49-45 on government spending and 47-44 on illegal immigration. Among the disapprovers, the Democratic party is seen as too liberal on government spending by a margin of 30-12 and on illegal immigration by a razor-thin 21-20.
On the hot-button social issues, Democrats are much more satisfied with their party, saying it does a good job representing them on abortion and same-sex marriage by margins of 61-28 and 62-28. By contrast, Republicans say their party does not do a good job representing them on abortion by 45-44 and on same-sex marriage by 53-34. Here Democratic disapprovers says their party is too liberal (versus too conservative) by modest margins (16-11, 15-12), while Republican disapprovers interestingly split, with those saying their party is too liberal leading those who say it’s too conservative on abortion by 24-19, and those saying it’s too conservative leading those who say it’s too liberal on same-sex marriage by 28-22.
The results suggest that the GOP has some room to move towards the middle on the social issues, and same-sex marriage in particular. The problem is that disapproval comes disproportionately from white evangelicals, who constitute one-third of the party’s constituency. Those white evangelicals who say the party doesn’t do a good job representing them on abortion split 34-7 in favor of those who think the party is too liberal, while all other Republicans think the party is too conservative by 24-20. On same-sex marriage, the disapproving white evangelicals think the party is too liberal by 37-11, while all other Republicans think it’s too conservative by 35-15. In other words, by moving towards the center on those issues, the GOP risks alienating a significant portion of its evangelical base.
Any such movement is even less likely on the more salient federal issues of government spending and immigration. On government spending a plurality of Republicans think their party is too liberal and on immigration one-third do. (On immigration, white evangelicals are again most likely to disapprove of the GOP’s position as excessively liberal — despite their leaders’ support for a path to citizenship.) In other words, in contrast to the Democratic Party, where any internal push would be modest and to the center, the internal push in the GOP is further to the extreme.
It should therefore come as no surprise that, as the New York Times predicts today, Republicans in the next Congress will be more conservative and less open to compromise than they are in the current one. The Tea Party may have lost most of its primary battles in 2014, but it has won its war.