As discussed here back in 2008, a big part of Barack Obama’s approach to politics has involved efforts to force Republicans either to compromise or to split. As we all know now, the GOP has been extraordinarily resistant to pressure to compromise. And while Obama did succeed in peeling off a small but significant portion of prior Republican voters in 2008 and 2012, the long-awaited GOP split between old-school Republicans and the ascendant and increasingly radical movement conservatives hasn’t transpired, either.
In the wake of the government shutdown/debt default mess, there’s now fresh hope, and some fresh evidence, that things could be shaking loose within the GOP. I addressed this possibility rather skeptically at Washington Monthly today.
Today’s new revelations from the latest NBC/WSJ survey on favorable/unfavorable ratings for the GOP among its rank-and-file will doubtless fan speculation about a potential split. They show GOP favorability among self-identified Republicans dropping to 49/26 (as compared to 73/7 among Democrats). Moreover, non-Tea Party Republicans are exhibiting significantly more disgruntlement (41/32) than Tea Party Republicans (56/21). On top of that, in a hypothetical three-way generic congressional contest involving a Democrat, and Republican, and a third party/independent candidate, non-Tea GOPer are more likely to go indie (32% as opposed to 25% for Tea Folk). Chuck Todd and his colleagues at NBC’s First Read place a lot of stock in these latter numbers indicating that threats of defection from the GOP are now graver from “the center” than “the right.”
Maybe, but maybe not. When you stare at all these numbers, some problems emerge.
For one thing, while Republicans are broken down into Tea and Non-Tea factions, independents are not. Given the past tendency of Tea Folk to disproportionately identify as indies even though they almost all vote overwhelmingly Republican, Republican identifiers within the Tea Nation are obviously going to be relatively quite loyal.
More importantly, happiness and unhappiness with the current condition of the GOP is likely to have different meanings for different Republicans. If one stipulates that the GOP is dangerously right-wing these days, the numbers look a little different: add together the 56% of Tea Folk who feel good about it with the 21% who likely think the party should be more conservative, plus the 41% of non-Tea GOPers who are happy with the party’s direction, and you don’t exactly have a mandate for moderation, do you? (And this is totally aside from the reality that Tea Folk are significantly more likely to participate in Republican primaries).
As for the third-party support findings, they are indeed interesting, but in the absence of any identification of what kind of ideology an indie/third-party would stand for, it’s really just an indication of party loyalty, which brings us full circle. Fully 61% of self-identified indies in the survey say they’d support an indie/third-party candidate, but it’s hard to know what if anything that means if you don’t know whether we’re talking about a hard-core Tea Party candidate or some sort of Michael Bloomberg “centrist.”
So while pursuing a split in the GOP is obviously an important Grand Strategy goal for Democrats–it’s been a big part of Obama’s Grand Strategy from the get-go–and while Democrats are much happier with their party than Republicans, it’s a bit early for the Donkey Party to declare any kind of victory or even a major advance. If you add in the fact that elected officials are massively less likely to defy party discipline than the rank-and-file, perhaps the most we can say is that the preconditions for a GOP split are coming into view, but still at a great distance until such time as we see more evidence.
Democrats are just going to have to be patient, and work harder, if they want to see the GOP rupture or lose many millions of previous voters.