Liberal Republicans—They're Alive!

Until not long ago, we tended to think of Republicans as unified and focused, and Democrats as inherently fractious (see, for instance, the evergreen "Dems In Disarray" headline). These days the opposite is true—or at least it's the case that Republicans have become just as divided as Democrats. But how much of that is about Washington infighting and intraparty struggles for power, and how much is actually substantive and matters to voters? This post from The Upshot at the New York Times has some provocative hints. Using polling data from February that tested opinions on a range of issues, they found that Republicans are much less unified than Democrats when it comes to their opinions on policy:

On these seven issues, 47 percent of self-identified Democrats agree with the party’s stance on at least six of them. And 66 percent agree with at least five. Republicans were less cohesive, with just 25 percent agreeing on six or more issues, and 48 percent agreeing on five.

Piling on more issues showed similar results. To check our results, we also created an 11-issue index that added four topics: federal funding for universal pre-kindergarten, the distribution of wealth in the United States, the minimum wage and abortion. A majority of Democrats—61 percent—agreed with at least eight Democratic positions, compared with 42 percent of Republicans who agreed with eight or more Republican positions.

Even though you have a relatively large number of issues being tested, it could be a function of the particular ones we're talking about. For instance, minimum wage increases are hugely popular and always have been, so it isn't surprising that plenty of Republicans break with their party on that, and it doesn't necessarily signify a fundamental and meaningful fracture. So I went over to the original poll, which has a nice interactive graphic you can use to see crosstabs on each question, and there are some interesting signs of dissent within the GOP. For instance:

  • 20 percent of Republicans say their party is nominating candidates who are too conservative, compared to only 9 percent of Democrats who say their party's candidates are too liberal. At the same time, 32 percent of Republicans say their party's candidates aren't conservative enough, compared to 18 percent of Democrats who say their party's candidates aren't liberal enough.
  • 29 percent of Republicans say they have an unfavorable view of the Republican party, compared to 14 percent of Democrats who have an unfavorable view of the Democratic party.
  • On many issues, there are between a quarter and two-fifths of Republicans who disagree with the party's position. 34 percent think marijuana should be legal, 33 percent think gun laws should be more strict, 28 percent support federally funded universal pre-K, 24 percent think global warming is caused mostly by human activity, 36 percent support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, 40 percent support same-sex marriage, and 37 percent think the distribution of wealth should be more fair.

The Tea Party gets all the press, and not without reason, but there is obviously a significant bloc of Republicans who are displeased with their party's right turn in the last few years. We're talking about more than just a few disgruntled Rockefeller Republicans bemoaning it after 18 holes at the Greenwich country club. We're talking about as much as a third of the party's voters.

Of course, issues aren't everything, and these days, conservatism is defined in many ways. It's a set of policy positions, but it can also be measured by the depth of your loathing for Democrats in general and Barack Obama in particular, or by the kinds of political tactics you embrace. But this is a good reminder that there are significant numbers of Republicans out there who, if you just look at what they think about issues, actually look pretty liberal.

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