The Cycle of Republican Radicalization

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported on a Quinnipiac poll from a week ago showing a striking change in public opinion on immigration. The question was whether undocumented immigrants should be deported or should be able to get on a path to citizenship. Clear majorities of the public have long favored a path to citizenship (especially if you provide details of what that path would entail, which this poll didn't). But that has changed, because Republicans have changed. As the Post described the Quinnipiac results, "Although [Republicans] supported citizenship over deportation 43 to 38 percent in November 2013, today they support deportation/involuntary departure over citizenship, 54 to 27 percent."

That's an enormous shift, and it provides an object lesson in a dynamic that has repeated itself many times during the Obama presidency. We've talked a lot about how the GOP in Congress has moved steadily to the right in recent years, but we haven't paid as much attention to the movement of Republican voters. But the two feed off each other in a cycle.

Immigration is a perfect example. Before this latest immigration controversy, Republican voters were at least favorably inclined toward a path to citizenship. But then Barack Obama moves to grant temporary legal status to some undocumented people (and by the way, nothing he's doing creates a path to citizenship for anyone, but that's another story). It becomes a huge, headline-dominating story, in which every single prominent Republican denounces the move as one of the most vile offenses to which the Constitution has ever been subjected. Conservative media light up with condemnations. And because voters take cues from the elites on their own side, Republicans are naturally going to think the order was wrong while Democrats are going to think it was right.

But what the Quinnipiac poll suggests — and granted, this is only one poll and we won't know for sure until we get more evidence — this process also ends up shifting people's underlying beliefs about the issue. In this case, the controversy makes Republicans more conservative.

Let's take another example. People like me have mocked Republican officeholders for the way they shifted on the wisdom of health insurance reform that involves establishing a marketplace where people can buy private insurance, providing subsidies so those with modest incomes can afford it, and imposing an individual mandate to ensure a wide risk pool. When Mitt Romney passed a plan on that model in 2006, Republicans thought it was an innovative, market-based solution to the problem of health insecurity and the uninsured, but when Barack Obama passed a similar plan in 2010, they decided it was a freedom-murdering socialist nightmare.

But it's safe to say that the average Republican voter didn't have much of an opinion on that particular kind of health care reform prior to Barack Obama becoming president. They did, however, have opinions on the underlying question of whether it's the responsibility of the government to make sure that everyone has health coverage. You'd expect most Republicans to say no, since they believe in the free market and aren't favorably inclined toward the safety net. And most did — in Gallup polls, the number of Republicans answering no to this question has consistently been over 50 percent. In 2006, for instance, it was 57 percent. But since then the rejection of government having this responsibility has gone from a majority position among Republicans to near-unanimity. In 2013, it reached 86 percent.

So it isn't just that Republican voters were convinced that the Affordable Care Act is a bad thing. As a group they moved to the right, with the minority of them who believed in a government responsibility for health care either changing their minds or changing their party affiliation.

This movement hasn't happened on every issue; for instance, you might be surprised to learn that substantial numbers of Republican voters appreciate the reality of global warming and favor taking steps to address it; in some cases, even a majority of them do, depending on what specific question is being asked (see here for some examples). My guess is that there are two reasons we haven't seen a similar movement to the right on climate. First, there is some diversity of opinion within the GOP elite, from outright climate denialism on one end to acknowledgement of reality on the other (without, it should be said, accepting that anything ought to be done about it). Second, and perhaps more important, the issue has never been at the top of the news agenda for an extended period in recent years, particularly in a conflict that pits all Republicans against Barack Obama.

But when an issue like immigration or health care does meet those criteria, you get a particular cycle. Elite Republicans take their place in the fight against Obama; then rank-and-file Republicans follow along; then pushed by their constituencies, the officeholders harden their positions, which in turn pulls their voters farther to the right, and on it goes. The particularly intense loathing Republicans at all levels have for Obama feeds the cycle, pushing them toward not just disagreeing with him on particular courses of policy but rejecting the underlying principles he holds.

Is this cycle going to continue after Obama leaves office? If Hillary Clinton wins in 2016, it probably will.

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