By the Numbers: Inside the GOP

A prominent Democratic pollster has embarked on a project aimed at defining the challenges for the Republican Party. Eleanor Clift explains why.

In an unusual twist for a Democratic pollster, Stanley Greenberg this week released the first survey of what will be an in-depth look at the Republican Party over the next year. He said it was prompted by longtime colleague James Carville’s belief that what’s wrong with the GOP is not its leaders, but its voters, playing off former Georgia governor Lester Maddox’s famous comment that there was nothing wrong with his state’s prisons, they just needed a better class of prisoners. “I respect the voters and the way they think,” Greenberg said, and explained that instead of blaming the voters, he was trying to understand them in a respectful way.

Granted, it’s unusual for a Democratic pollster to focus on the GOP. But the polling is legit, and the results will be made public through Democracy Corps, the group founded by Carville and Greenberg.

Greenberg detailed the data in the polling’s first report at a breakfast Tuesday hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “Our goal is to put their challenges out on the table,” Greenberg said, so that forces both inside and outside the party, Republicans and Democrats, will know what they’re up against.

There is no one more negative about their own party than Republicans, Greenberg asserted. Disaffected moderates represent 25 percent of Republican voters and report feeling “powerless.” Hatred of President Obama—measured at 93 percent among those who identify with the Tea Party and 54 percent among moderates—unites the GOP. “Hatred of health-care reform is what gives all segments [of the party] purpose,” the survey found.

Republicans are holding on in rural and small-town America and among married men and women, but these are not the fast-growing parts of the electorate. The survey finds Republicans intensely opposed to gay marriage, strongly favoring pro-life groups, and incorporating opposition to dealing with global warming as part of their values. A significant number of moderates and “leaners” describe the GOP as “out of touch.”

A Washington Post–ABC Poll released Tuesday echoes Greenberg’s findings, reporting that only 21 percent of Americans identify themselves as Republicans, the lowest number since November 2009. A majority (52 percent) of Republicans think that their party is going in the wrong direction. By contrast, 72 percent of Democrats think their party is going in the right direction.

Asked if it’s possible for the GOP to elect a president in 2016 with these numbers, Greenberg said, “It would be hard.” He was then asked what a disenchanted moderate Republican should do. “If I were Jeb Bush, I would run as a moderate. I would try to lock in that 25 percent in the party—create a base. If he really did have a 25 percent base to carry through the primaries, maybe you can win the argument,” Greenberg said. “If I’m Jeb Bush or whoever will play that role, I wouldn’t try to move to the right—I would begin with that base.”

Not many Republicans are going to listen to a Democratic pollster, but Greenberg has a track record when it comes to remaking a major political party. The challenges the GOP faces today—a party that its own partisans find too extreme—is the mirror image of what Democrats experienced in the late ’80s after losing three successive presidential elections. Greenberg was one of the architects of Bill Clinton’s election in 1992. Democrats went through a more than two decades’ process, Greenberg said, noting that in 2000 Democrats were divided over whether there was a dime’s worth of difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore. The ensuing eight years answered that question, and since then no Democratic version of what the Tea Party represents to Republicans has gotten any traction.

The GOP’s precipitous decline is perhaps best measured by looking at a group they’re still winning, but not by the margins they once did. Democrats lost seniors by 26 points in 2010. In the four polls Greenberg has done just this year focusing on seniors, Republicans were winning them by 12 at the start of the year; now they’re winning by 5 or 6. Finding out what’s behind the numbers will be done in focus groups that are scheduled in North Carolina, Virginia, and Colorado, where Greenberg plans to go into traditional Republican areas to listen to the voters.

Despite the GOP’s poor showing in his survey, Greenberg finds the congressional vote is a dead heat—neither party has the advantage. His assessment is based on the expectation that the turnout in 2014 will more closely resemble 2010, and that the unmarried women and rising electorate of brown and black voters that reelected Obama will not turn out in sufficient numbers. Greenberg chides Democrats and President Obama for failing to use their big win in 2012 to build momentum “but allowed the Republicans to get up and set the terms of the debate ... The Republican Party is endangered as a national party but it has dug in. In the Civil War, General Meade did not pursue General Lee after Gettysburg, and let the Confederate Army escape—extending the war two years.” In politics, the victor usually sets the terms of the debate, but not in Washington, where a minority of a minority party sets the agenda in ways that nobody likes, but nobody can figure out how to change.