Voters Aren’t Buying

Published October 30, 2014

The Weekly Standard

Indications of a midterm GOP wave are making Republicans more optimistic about the party’s 2016 presidential chances. Data from a recent 50-state poll offer support for that feeling. But the survey also shows the party’s core economic message may not be as popular as many Republicans think.

The data come from a poll released in early October by CBS News, the New York Times, and the YouGov polling firm. Using an online panel weighted to reflect the political and demographic trends of each state, YouGov asked questions about a host of issues and attitudes that are likely to be important in both this year’s midterm and the 2016 election. Five questions are of particular import in gauging potential receptiveness to the GOP economic platform.

The best news for the GOP comes on government spending. Voters were asked to choose one of three options to cut the federal budget deficit: raise taxes, cut spending, or do both. Even when given the squishy “split it down the middle” option, voters in 47 of the 50 states said Congress should only cut spending. Liberal bastions like California and New York gave a plurality victory to the “ending spending” option. Voters in 36 states gave majority backing to the conservative approach, including those in the swing states of Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Repealing Obamacare was also widely popular. YouGov gave voters four options regarding the president’s signature effort: expand it, keep it as is, repeal part of it, and repeal all of it. Again, even voters in liberal bastions chose to repeal Obamacare in whole or in part. Voters in 45 of the 50 states gave majority approval to the combined repeal options.

Running solely on a “repeal Obamacare” platform, however, won’t be enough. No more than 40 percent of the voters in any swing state carried by Obama in 2012 approved of the “repeal it all” option. A clear majority emerged when voters saying that only part of the law should be repealed were added to the mix. There are a plethora of Obamacare replacement plans from conservative health experts. A successful GOP nominee will likely have to pick and choose from among these to craft a winning message, explaining that some of the attractive goals of Obamacare can be better achieved by a conservative alternative.

The poll has less positive news when it comes to the party’s approach to generating economic growth. The GOP has largely been united against increasing the minimum wage. However, increasing the minimum wage is as popular as repealing Obamacare. Only 5 deep red states opposed increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, and a majority of voters in every swing state gave the populist measure their thumbs up.

Most important, the ground for the party’s apparent current economic message, which tends to stress incentives for those with capital, may not be very fertile at all. YouGov asked voters if the country’s economic system favored the wealthy. A plurality in all 50 states said it does. A majority of voters in most deep red states agreed, and over 60 percent of voters in every swing state followed suit. Other national polls show that a large majority of voters believe the GOP is the party of the rich. Together, these data suggest the 2016 nominee will need to tread carefully when crafting a tax plan.

The 2016 GOP nominee is likely to be caught between two economic possibilities. By 2016, voters could be less populist and feeling better about their chances in the economy. But that is only likely if the economy is getting better, and if that happens the Democrats are likely to get the credit. On the other hand, if things get worse the populist mood will likely only deepen. Voters won’t trust government, but they also will remain embittered at a class that continues to fare well even as they lose jobs or income.

The current depth of this populist mood is best seen in YouGov’s question on immigration. The poll asked a standard question: what voters think should be done about illegal immigrants already in the country. Unlike most pollsters, however, YouGov did not ask if those already here should be “deported.” Instead, it asked if illegals should “be required to leave the U.S.” When given this less emotionally charged option, majorities in 32 states chose the “leave the U.S.” choice. This did not include three swing states with significant Hispanic and/or young, secular, college-educated populations (Colorado, Florida, and Virginia), but did include every Midwestern swing state plus Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. It even included Maine and Rhode Island, two states with significant white working-class populations. The immigration hardline position won in states with 278 electoral votes, just enough to elect a president.

The approach favored by the GOP establishment, which includes giving illegals a path to citizenship, is not popular even in deep blue states. Indeed, no state gave majority support to the option that illegals should “be allowed to stay and apply for citizenship.” If one adds the third YouGov option, “stay but no citizenship,” to the “leave the U.S.” voters, every state has a majority opposed to a path to citizenship. The opposition to citizenship for illegals in swing states ranges from a low of 56 percent in Colorado to a high of 66 percent in New Hampshire.

The standard GOP establishment tax and budget playbook might also be a rough sell. Establishment Republicans strongly favor comprehensive tax reform, and most current GOP versions of that would raise taxes on many middle- and upper-middle-income families while lowering taxes for those earning $500,000 or more annually. Republicans also support cutting domestic spending, especially on entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. These cuts would be phased in over many years and exempt current recipients in most cases, but the values the GOP prioritizes would be clear. Those values, favoring budget stability and investment by the wealthy over continuation of the old age safety net Americans are familiar with, are unlikely to be shared by voters who already think the economic system is rigged for the rich.

The GOP establishment should instead look very carefully at what the GOP governors in light blue and purple states have done. All have either accepted Medicaid expansion or otherwise expanded subsidized health care. Michigan governor Rick Snyder signed a bill increasing his state’s minimum wage, and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker is pledging to freeze tuition at state universities. Walker, Snyder, Ohio governor John Kasich, and Florida governor Rick Scott have also all cut income, business, or property taxes, but none has passed the type of comprehensive individual income tax reforms favored by the national GOP establishment. Republicans running statewide who have shepherded through comprehensive tax reform bills, such as North Carolina house speaker Thom Tillis and Kansas governor Sam Brownback, are currently either behind or running even with their Democratic opponents despite the national GOP tide.

It’s not like these more popular GOP governors have all taken the easy, “me too Democrat” road to reelection. Snyder signed a “right-to-work” bill in one of the most pro-labor states. Walker famously took on his state’s public employee unions and beat them in a nationally prominent, yearlong fight. Both, however, understood that politics is the art of the possible and that one must pick one’s battles carefully.

Establishment Republicans need to understand that America is in a populist moment. Most Americans did not see much benefit from the growth of the mid-2000s; throw in the recessions before and after that, and they haven’t seen much rise in disposable income in 15 years. Some have fallen behind, others are treading water, and few feel things are working well for them. Ignoring their sentiments is a sure way to stay out of the White House.

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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