What Do Republican Voters Want?

Column: Rising GOP stars play pin the tail on the elephant

Rubio Trump Hawley
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November 15, 2019

The latest entry in the post-Trump conservatism sweepstakes was Marco Rubio's speech at the Catholic University of America in early November. The Florida senator made the case for a "common-good capitalism" that looks on markets in the light of Catholic social thought. "We must remember that our nation does not exist to serve the interests of the market," he said. "The market exists to serve our nation."

Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri shares many of the same attitudes. He told the inaugural "National Conservatism" conference in July that the "cosmopolitan consensus" dominating our politics "abandons the idea of the republic altogether" and leaves us "with the curse of faction." To "rebuild our sense of shared purpose and belonging," he went on, Republicans "must protect our communities of faith," while "encouraging capital investment in the great American middle," "investing in research and innovation in the heartland of this country," and "challenging the economic concentration that stifles small producers and family enterprises."

Rubio and Hawley are the standard-bearers of a shift against markets among some quarters of the right. They want to integrate the lessons of 2016 into a policy agenda for the years after President Trump leaves office. They point to a possible direction for American conservatism. But they should have no illusions. The agenda they propose for the future bears little relation to the Republican Party of the present.

I worry that conservatives will commit themselves to a misreading of the political terrain. There always has been danger in over-interpreting the results of Trump's plurality victory in the primaries and a razor-thin Electoral College victory in the general. Nor do social media encourage detached analysis. Abstract theories paraded on the Internet are easily mistaken for concrete realities. Republicans will be in trouble if they replicate the dilemmas of a Democratic Party imprisoned within its woke Twitter shell.

Rubio and Hawley speak for—and hope to appeal to—the segment of the electorate that the 2017 Pew Research Center political typology identified as "Market Skeptic Republicans." The senators' political logic: Market Skeptic Republicans are the fulcrum on which Trump's fate, and that of the GOP, depends.


On the other hand, Market Skeptic Republicans, who support increased taxes on corporations and say the system is rigged in favor of the rich, are just 12 percent of registered voters and 10 percent of the politically engaged (defined as registered voters who follow politics closely and participate in elections regularly).

Three other groups make up the GOP. "Core Conservatives" are traditional Republicans. "Country First Conservatives" are older than other GOP-leaning groups, have fewer bachelor's degrees, and oppose immigration and involvement overseas. "New Era Enterprisers" are younger, more diverse, pro-immigration, and pro-business.

Together, Core Conservatives and New Era Enterprisers comprise 26 percent of registered voters and 29 percent of the politically engaged. They provide the dominant Republican discourse. The Country First Conservatives and Market Skeptic Republicans supply the critique. As interesting and novel as this critique may be—and perhaps because it is so interesting and novel—it is easy to commit the fallacy of composition and mistake the market-skeptical part for the whole.

It might be argued that, because Core Conservatives and New Era Enterprisers are more reliable GOP constituencies, Market Skeptics are the ones Republicans have to court. But recent elections amply demonstrate that the party does not have a solid lock on college-degree-holding, suburban-dwelling Core Conservatives after all. On the contrary: It is the flight of these voters from the GOP that is responsible for Democratic victories in 2018 and 2019. A thriving party includes all four types.

Public opinion data reveal a Republican Party that, while highly supportive of President Trump, is wary of his behavior, ambivalent over his legacy, and consistent in its beliefs.

A March 2019 poll conducted by Heritage Action found that 52 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement: "I am bothered by some of President Trump's policies and character, but I support him because I agree with many of the things he stands for, and because I don't want the media and the Democrats to defeat him." Sixty-two percent of Republicans identified as either a member of the traditional GOP or a member of the conservative movement. Thirty-two percent identified as part of the Trump movement.

This vocal minority coexists uneasily with more numerous party regulars. An October Morning Consult survey asked 1,218 registered Republicans to name their favorite Republican. Forty-one percent said Ronald Reagan. Thirty-three percent said Donald Trump. "Reagan Republicans are wealthier than Trump Republicans, more highly educated and are more likely to identify as Christian," write Eli Yokley and Joanna Piacenza.

They're also more likely to name the economy as their top voting issue, while Trump Republicans prioritize security issues such as border security, terrorism and foreign policy. And while a majority of Reagan Republicans live in the suburbs, Trump Republicans are almost evenly divided between suburbs and rural areas, with 1 in 5 living in a city.

Trump is popular with both groups. Most Republicans told the Morning Consult pollsters that he has changed the party, and for the better. But they were split on whether this transformation is temporary or permanent. Forty-seven percent said it's a passing phase.

GOP issue positions remain the same. In a 2018 Gallup survey, 71 percent of Republicans had a positive view of capitalism. Supermajorities of both Reagan and Trump Republicans in the Morning Consult poll said it was important to support smaller government, religious freedom, and a wall on the southern border. The top three issues for Republicans in the 2018 Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) American Values Survey were the economy (44 percent), national security (40 percent), and immigration (36 percent). Indeed, PRRI found a slight majority of all adults in favor of reducing legal migration to the United States, a position that enjoyed the support of 78 percent of Republicans and most independents.

If you were to draw a picture, based on the data, of a Republican politician who could unify the party and be competitive at large, he would combine the spirit and demeanor of Reagan with Trumpian inflections on trade and, especially, immigration. He would be more populist than his predecessors in the pre-Trump GOP, but not radically different in economic, social, or national security policy. To go too far in one direction, to favor one part of the coalition over another, would rupture unity and guarantee failure.

Why, then, are Republican and conservative circles involved in heated theoretical debates over such tangential matters as nationalism, industrial policy, trust busting, economic development, and post-fusionism? One culprit is congressional weakness. Deprived of opportunities to pass legislation, our most promising congressmen instead deliver speeches, write books and op-eds, and appear on television.

Media also play a role. Not only are proposals for new taxes, spending, and regulation far less controversial to the press than immigration restriction, opposition to abortion, and defense of the Second Amendment. Conservatives have their own information cocoon.

The conversation surrounding the slow-rolling realignment of the GOP into a party that includes more voters without college degrees has come to resemble progressive discussions about the so-called rising American electorate. Prophets glimpse dazzling images of the future. An online bandwagon promotes the most heterodox voices. Iconoclasm is so bold and exciting that hardly anyone checks if revisionist ideas have worked out in the past, and if not, why not. Feelings of camaraderie and élan accompany the sense of being part of a rising ideological tide. Policies are proposed that might not have any relation or appeal to intended beneficiaries.

Many Democrats convinced themselves that their party is made up of voters eager to confiscate guns, open the border, and strip churches of nonprofit status. Now they are puzzled to find a septuagenarian moderate white male leading polls nationwide and in South Carolina and Nevada, and tied in New Hampshire.

A similar fate awaits Republican candidates who run in 2024 on the assumption that the GOP electorate resembles the one they read about online.