Conservatives versus Republicans

President Obama ends his first month in office with a very impressive approval rating. Perhaps more impressive are new polls showing the Democrats with a strong edge in partisan identification. In the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama took 53 percent of the vote, seven points more than John McCain. Now the president's approval rating is 68 percent. Some analysts see these results as evidence that the country had embraced the philosophy of the political left. At first glance, the Democratic- Republican gap in voters' party identification would back that up. In Pew's polling from February 2009, 36 percent of adults identified themselves as Democrats and 24 percent as Republicans--a 12 point party identification gap.

As bad as the current gap looks for Republicans, it starts to look even worse as part of a trend over time. In 2002, Pew reported that the gap in party self-identification was just one point--34 percent of registered voters were self-identified Democrats, and 33 percent were self-identified Republicans. In just seven years, then, the self-identification gap had grown by ten points. It seems unlikely that this shift is entirely attributable to the growing unpopularity of a Republican president over this time period.

The growing party identification gap in certain states should definitely be cause for Republican concern. North Carolina provides a good example. George W. Bush beat Al Gore in North Carolina by seven points in the 2000 presidential elections, but in 2008, Obama won the state by three-tenths of a percent over McCain. In 2000, the party identification gap in North Carolina among registered voters was five points (40 percent self-identified Democrats vs. 35 percent self-identified Republicans). By 2008, that gap had expanded to 13 points (39 percent self-identified Democrats vs. 26 percent self-identified Republicans). Once a Republican stronghold, North Carolina is now firmly in the swing state category, and Republicans must pay attention to boosting voters' self-identification with the Republican Party in states like this if they are to stay competitive nationally.

The Republican Party faces two potential paths--it could move rightward and advocate more conservative policy positions, or it could champion a more open philosophy based on the principle of limited government. The latter approach would be a better course of action.

Some pundits have suggested that the Republicans embrace a version of the 50-state strategy to stop the bleeding, and perhaps even turn around some of these negative trends. However, there are two reasons why Republicans should not overreact in an attempt to reinvent themselves.

First, the party self-identification gap is not a new phenomenon--Republicans have consistently lagged behind Democrats in this area even in times of great Republican electoral success. A case in point: Ronald Reagan in 1984. Reagan won 49 states on his way to reelection, but in that year, only 39 percent of Americans called themselves Republicans, compared to 48 percent who identified themselves as Democrats. Clearly, party identification is not a perfect reflection of how the electorate feels about specific candidates.

Second, while party self-identification favors Democrats, ideological self-identification actually has consistently favored the political right. In fact, less than half of self-identified Democrats have also called themselves liberals over the past 40 years. According to the ANES survey, in 2004, 49 percent of the national electorate called themselves Democrats, but only 23 percent referred to themselves as liberal (including the categories of "extremely liberal," "liberal," and "slightly liberal"). Meanwhile, 36 percent placed themselves in one of the corresponding conservative categories. Given all the talk that American conservatism is at death's door, it is surprising that voters seem less reluctant to identify themselves as conservatives than as liberals.

In the current environment, the conservative "brand" may be more popular than the Republican label for several reasons. The unpopularity of the most recent administration and the GOP's failure to articulate a cohesive set of values are clearly key. Boosting the national and statewide percentages of self-identified Republicans depends upon the party's promotion of principles that appeal to those who view themselves as conservatives.

But the great challenge for Republicans may be determining how self-identified conservatives actually view conservatism, and how to associate these views with Republicanism so that the party will have the same positive overtones as the ideology. Based on the statistics presented here, some might argue that the answer is to move the Republican Party further to the right. Those who take this position might point to McCain's unsuccessful candidacy as evidence that when the Party chooses to abandon ideological purity in favor of a more moderate perspective, the results are disastrous. However, this interpretation of the statistics assumes that voters take a very narrow view of conservatism. If, on the other hand, voters tend to see conservatism as espousing the universal values of limited government and fiscal responsibility, then a move towards greater strictness on policy positions could alienate more voters than it would attract.

The Republican Party faces two potential paths--it could move rightward and advocate more conservative policy positions, or it could champion a more open philosophy based on the principle of limited government. The latter approach would be a better course of action. Images from the just-concluded Conservative Political Action Conference--such as the electric response to Rush Limbaugh's conference-closing address--suggest that the conservative movement is primarily populated by those who identify with the right wing on a range of specific policy issues. While this is certainly true of some conservatives, it would be incorrect to describe all self-identified Republicans and conservatives in that way.

Although most self-identified Republicans say they think the party should move in a more conservative direction, many Republicans hold positions on specific issues that are more moderate than right-wing. So do many conservatives. Take the issue of abortion. Perhaps surprisingly, self-identified conservatives are not a monolith. In May 2008, nearly three in ten self-identified conservatives called themselves "pro-choice." The numbers among self-identified moderates are more illuminating--55 percent called themselves "pro-choice," while 38 percent said they were "pro-life." Therefore, if the Republican Party were to take a more conservative position on the abortion issue, this could lead to diminished support for the party. Even though John McCain was a strongly pro-life candidate, the current limited political influence of abortion relative to other policy issues combined with the public perception of McCain as a moderate Republican strongly suggest that the abortion issue had little impact on the 2008 presidential race. However, that is not to say that abortion does not have the potential to impact elections if the Republican Party were to move further to the right on the issue.

Though the words and positions of Rush Limbaugh may resonate with many conservatives and Republicans, they are likely to turn off the significant number of Republicans (and potential Republicans) who see conservatism as something broader than the views espoused by talk radio.

Jennifer Marsico is a research assistant at AEI.

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About the Author


Jennifer K.
  • Jennifer K. Marsico is a senior research associate at AEI, working in the Political Corner. Her research focuses on elections and election reform, as well as government continuity issues. She is a visiting fellow at the Independent Women's Forum. She is also a contributor to the AEIdeas blog, and has also written for many outside print and online publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, and Roll Call. Ms. Marsico serves as assistant director of the AEI-Brookings Continuity of Government Commission, and has contributed to recent studies on Supreme Court continuity, voter registration modernization, and civic participation in the digital age.

  • Phone: 202.862.5899

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