It's been true for many years that Democrats have an advantage among the electorate on most issues. Whether it's economics, or health care, or foreign policy, the position held by elected Democrats is usually (though not always) more popular than the one held by Republicans — sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot. It's a tribute to Republicans' political dexterity that they've managed to win lots of elections despite this fact, in part because they've always understood that issues are only a part of how voters decide for whom to cast their votes.
But a new Washington Post poll shows something qualitatively different. Instead of what we've come to expect—Republicans have the support of their voters, Democrats have the support of their voters, and they fight over the few independents in between—on a couple of extremely important issues, elected Republicans have gone so far to the right that they've left their own voters behind.
With the important caveat that this is only one poll, I want to point to a couple of remarkable findings:
- "Obama has said he will reduce U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan to 9,800 by the end of this year, half of that next year and near zero by 2016. Do you support or oppose this troop-reduction plan?" Unlike other questions, this mentions the hated Barack Obama. And yet 60 percent of Republicans say they support Obama's plan.
- "Do you think the federal government should or should not limit the release of greenhouse gases from existing power plants in an effort to reduce global warming?" 63 percent of Republicans say it should. When the poll went on to ask whether they'd still support the policy if it "significantly lowered greenhouse gases but raised your monthly energy expenses by 20 dollars a month," 51 percent of Republicans still said yes.
There's always going to be more diversity of opinion among a party's adherents than among its officeholders. By the time you work your way up through the party, heresies tend to get discarded as you navigate the path to success. So while there are some pro-life Democratic voters, there are almost no pro-life Democratic members of Congress, just as while there are some Republican voters who favor gun restrictions, there are almost no Republican members of Congress who do. But it's unusual, to say the least, to find places where a majority of a party's voters disagree with the consensus position of its leaders.
And on climate change, it could become a problem for them, particularly in 2016. To repeat, this poll finds that 63 percent of Republican voters think we should limit greenhouse gas emissions to fight global warming. But the GOP's official perspective on climate change can be summed up in Marco Rubio's immortal words: "I'm not a scientist, man" (although in that case he was actually talking about the age of the earth). All of the acceptable positions to take on climate have to incorporate that uncertainty. You can hold that global warming is a hoax concocted by a conspiracy of thousands of scientists. You can hold, as Charles Krauthammer does, that science itself can be ignored because it is a form of superstition and a venture into the unknowable. You can hold that the planet is warming, but that it's just because the climate changes naturally, getting both hotter and colder, and human activity had nothing to do with it. But the commonality to all these positions is that whatever you believe about the climate, the only appropriate policy response is to do nothing. Uncertainty is the excuse; as John Boehner said, "I'm not qualified to debate the science over climate change," which is why he said he opposes the coming regulations.
In 2012, Republican presidential candidates got into trouble because most of them had said in the past that global warming is happening, and that the market-based approach of cap and trade would be a good way to address it—the standard Republican position at the time. When the party moved right, they got caught in a bind. In 2016, a new generation of candidates won't have that problem; since most of them came to national prominence after that shift happened, they have no climate heresy to atone for. But they may find that while they're comfortably situated where the official party position now is, the actual Republican electorate has moved, if you can believe it, to their left.