Conservatives believe President Obama is extremely vulnerable in 2012. Yet the same polls that show his approval dangerously low also show him beating or running even with all of his declared GOP challengers. Why the seeming disconnect?
Most observers focus on the GOP candidates’ shortcomings, believing those might be giving swing voters pause. But the real reason might be a fundamental difference between white working-class swing voters and the Republican base on fiscal issues. These voters are much more likely to support higher government spending and less likely to support cutting entitlement programs than are core Republicans.
The differences are detailed in a Pew poll released in the summer that looked behind partisan preferences to identify the core voting blocs that combine to produce these preferences. Pew identified eight such blocs, one of which –“Disaffecteds”–is made up primarily of whites without a college degree who are political independents. This bloc is crucial to Republican electoral hopes; the Pew poll found they are up for grabs and the GOP could not win a majority without winning them by a large margin.
Disaffecteds are much less fiscally conservative than the three blocs that compose core Republican strength. About 45 percent of core Republicans believe the budget deficit is the most important economic issue; only 9 percent of disaffecteds agree. Forty-five percent of core Republicans think the deficit should be cut with major program reductions. Only 17 percent of disaffecteds agree; fully 65 percent want a combination of program cuts and tax hikes.
Disaffecteds and Republicans also disagree on which programs to cut. Disaffecteds are significantly more likely than Republicans to want to cut defense spending and are very resistant to altering entitlements. Only 15 percent of disaffecteds support changes to Social Security and Medicare to cut the budget, for example, compared to nearly half of staunch conservatives.
These differences came into public view in the debate over Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan. Strong conservatives like myself were thrilled, but polls quickly showed that feeling was not uniformly shared. There were many reasons why Jane Corwin lost the special election for the longtime GOP NY-26 House seat, but relentless attacks criticizing her for supporting the Ryan budget cuts to Medicare was one of them. Corwin did relatively the least well among the white working-class parts of the district.
These facts ought to be very disconcerting for conservatives. For decades, conservatives have won elections by wooing these voters with positions they approved of on crime, foreign policy and cultural issues. Economic growth allowed Republicans to expand most government spending programs while simultaneously keeping taxes stable. For both economic and political reasons, this balancing act is no longer possible.
It is no longer politically possible because core conservatives are no longer willing to sign on to an electoral bargain that envisions continued expansion of domestic spending as far as the eye can see. That is the Tea Party’s rallying cry, and no Republican who seeks to be nominated dare speak out against it.
It is no longer economically possible because the electoral balancing act was financed by throwing out an older conservative article of faith–balanced budgets. Our national and state debt levels are now too high by any objective measure. Something in the conservative electoral calculus has to give: either taxes must be raised, angering core Republicans, or spending on programs the middle and working classes value must be cut. And that could bring out uneasiness some working-class voters harbor about the Republican Party, leading them to question whether the party does have their interests genuinely at heart.
Conservative Republicans might be able to avoid dealing with this Hobson’s choice until after the election because disaffecteds dislike the president and distrust liberal economics. President Obama’s approval ratings are lowest among the white working class, dipping into the 20s among white working-class men in some polls. The Pew poll showed that disaffecteds view the Republican Party more favorably than they view the Democratic Party despite their differences with the GOP. This is because they continue to view government negatively– 73 percent of disaffected say the government is almost always wasteful and inefficient. But this merely shows that the white working class is anti-liberal; it does not follow that they are reflexively pro-conservative.
Conservatives have been caught in a 40-year conundrum in which they can win elections running against liberal excess but are unable to do much to reduce liberalism’s core. Whether before the election or after, Republicans will have to discover a way to persuade disaffected white working-class independents to back an economic policy they are not inclined to support.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.