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Why The Republican Party Isn’t Concerned With Popularity

After Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election, the Republican National Committee published what became known as the “GOP autopsy report,” an effort to identify and address the party’s ongoing political weaknesses. But eight years later, after losing another close race, the GOP appears wholly uninterested in reviewing or reforming its agenda. In fact, despite capturing the presidency, the Democratic Party has been far more interested in developing an attractive issue agenda. “There is only one political party that is terrified of losing an election because it looks too extreme,” said Seth Masket, a FiveThirtyEight contributor and political scientist at the University of Denver. “There’s a huge party asymmetry.”

But despite the fact that the GOP is quite unpopular and that much of its current agenda — such as overturning the Affordable Care Act or advancing restrictive immigration policies — does not appeal to a majority of voters, the party is in an enviable position heading into the 2022 midterm elections and beyond. What is to make of this glaring disconnect?

On the one hand, the GOP is fundamentally opposed to the type of legislation that tends to garner widespread public support: generous social-welfare policies. Most Americans want a single-payer health care system, paid parental leave and a higher minimum wage. But most Republicans are ideologically opposed to these policies — either because they do not believe they are the federal government’s responsibility, or because they think that these policies will ultimately prove counterproductive. A Pew Research Center survey from May 2021 found, for instance, that more than three-quarters of Republicans said that the government was taking on too many roles that were better left to private citizens and businesses.

But the biggest reason why the GOP may not be pushing more popular policies is that recent history suggests it’s unnecessary. Former President Trump’s startling 2016 election victory showed that an unpopular candidate with little interest in public policy can still win. For conservative activists disappointed in the outcomes of Romney’s and the late Sen. John McCain’s campaigns, the lesson of 2016 was that political candidates with personal baggage or extreme political views are no longer a liability.

The current structure of the Electoral College and the U.S. Senate also allows Republican candidates wider discretion in eschewing popular legislation. For instance, former FiveThirtyEight reporter Perry Bacon Jr. argued last March that the GOP’s structural advantages over the Democratic Party has allowed legislators to pursue more conservative policies than the average voter prefers. And as Laura Bronner and Nathaniel Rakich also wrote at FiveThirtyEight, Republicans have done this while often being in the minority: “Republican senators have not represented a majority of the population since 1999 — yet, from 2003 to 2007 and again from 2015 to 2021, Republicans had a majority of members of the Senate itself. That means that, for 10 years, Republican senators were passing bills — and not passing others — on behalf of a minority of Americans.” Furthermore, gerrymandering, particularly in state-legislative races, insulates Republican members from popular sentiment.

Recent work in political science offers another plausible explanation. In an increasingly polarized political system, individual issues may matter less than partisan identity. In other words, partisan loyalty to one’s own team is paramount. So instead of voting on issues, Americans appear to more readily adopt the views of party leaders. In a 2019 interview with The New York Times, Stanford political scientist Shanto Iyengar suggests that this is diminishing the relevance of political issues: “There is a growing body of work showing that policy preferences are driven more by partisans’ eagerness to support their party rather than considered analysis of the pros and cons of opposing positions on any given issue.”

There is one crucial caveat to all of this. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, the 1973 opinion that established a constitutional right to abortion, the issue of abortion may provide the most critical test to the GOP’s ability to defy political gravity yet. Even if Americans have conflicting views on abortion, few believe it should be completely illegal. Which is why a ruling that overturned Roe would put tremendous pressure on Republican elected officials to fully embrace the most extreme position — the complete illegality of abortion. It would almost certainly become a campaign issue in 2022, and Republican elected officials would be forced to defend a position that is broadly unpopular. 

The first and overriding goal for national political parties is to win elections. So if Republican candidates keep winning elections without offering an agenda that garners widespread public support, there is no reason to expect the party to change. The party is already poised to make gains in 2022 without putting forward a governing agenda. What would force the GOP to reevaluate? “It would take a sustained series of election losses,” said Masket. “They would need to lose elections they didn’t expect to lose.”

Even then, though, it’s not clear whether a course correction would be the end result. If the GOP is able to keep convincing itself that election losses are due to voter fraud and/or electoral malfeasance, there is no reason to expect the party’s agenda will change anytime soon.

Daniel Cox is a research fellow for polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute.