The Republican Problem With Independent Voters

As I've discussed before, there are moral judgments liberals and conservatives make about things like economics that not only underlie the positions they take on policy, but also make most of the empirical conversation we have about those issues kind of superfluous. We spend a lot of time marshalling facts to support positions that have a moral basis, when those facts have virtually no chance of persuading large segments of the population. For example, you can tell many conservatives that income mobility in the United States is lower than that in many countries, and it won't dent their belief that in this land of opportunity, everyone gets what they deserve and your wealth is a clear indicator of your virtue.

The good folks at the Pew Research Center have a new poll that includes some interesting questions probing how people think about poverty and economic fairness, and it shows how on this increasingly salient question, Republicans have a real political problem. Let's take a look at their key table:

Not surprisingly, there's a dramatic difference between what Republicans and Democrats believe on these questions. There's a difference, though not as large, between what people at different incomes believe. (I would have loved to see the answers broken out simultaneously by income and party, to see whether middle- and low-income Republicans are any different from high-income Republicans. Unfortunately, the sample size probably isn't big enough, and they lump together everyone with an income above $75,000 a year.) But as striking as the differences between Democrats and Republicans are, what should worry Republicans in these results is the distance between themselves and independents.

On every question, independents are closer to Democrats than they are to Republicans. I've remade the Pew table to illustrate:

The kinds of moral beliefs explored by these questions get expressed in the rhetoric that members of the two parties use when they debate things like inequality and the provision of safety-net programs. Democrats talk about helping people in need, and Republicans characterize those people in need as sinners who are getting their just desserts.

And that's a political problem for Republicans, because when they talk to each other—as in primary campaigns—you get a lot of rhetoric that is unpersuasive or downright offensive to the people they're going to have to appeal to in general elections if they want to get over 50 percent of the vote. That's how you get things like Mitt Romney's "47 percent" comment, which you'll recall was made at a fundraiser where he thought only rich Republicans were going to hear what he said. They're unlikely to fundamentally change how they think and talk about these issues, so the higher they are on the agenda, the worse it is for the GOP.

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