May 16, 2007

Deconstructing the Debate 5/15/07

How Well Did the GOP Candidates' Views Match Those of Their Party's Members and of the General Public?

by Jodie T. Allen, Richard C. Auxier, Alec Tyson

How did the views of the Republican presidential candidates in Tuesday night’s debate square with the opinions of rank-and-file Republicans and those of the larger electorate? A review of recent polling on the major topics addressed in the debate reveals that on most — though not all issues — the candidates are in tune with the majority of those who now identify themselves as Republicans or Republican-leaners (currently about 35% of the public), but somewhat at odds with the broader public.

Iraq

A plurality (31%) of Republicans and Republican-leaners name the Iraq war as the single most important issue in deciding between the candidates for the Republican nomination. Not surprisingly the issue not only opened the debate but dominated in subsequent questioning of and interchanges among the Republican candidates.

Troop Withdrawals and the ‘Surge’ – All of the debaters, with the sole exception of Libertarian Rep. Ron Paul, expressed strong support for continued prosecution of the war in Iraq. Asked if he was willing to be the “last man standing” in Iraq, Sen. John McCain answered that, given certain circumstances, he was. This response finds support among McCain’s party.

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A February Pew poll found that 60% of Republicans are concerned that the U.S. will leave Iraq before a stable democracy is in place, while only 30% worry that the U.S. will wait too long to withdraw its troops from Iraq. Some 71% of Republicans think the U.S. should keep troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized compared with only 24% of Republicans who favor immediate withdrawal. And about two-thirds of Republicans (65%), compared with only about a third of the general public (34%), think that in the long-term the build up of troops in Iraq will make the situation there better. Support for the war itself also remains strong among Republicans, a 79%-majority call the decision to use military force against Iraq the right decision, 18% call it the wrong decision.

The general public, however, takes a different view with 55% expressing concern that the U.S. will wait too long to withdraw compared with 35% who worry the U.S. will leave before a stable democracy is in place. Americans generally are split on the question of whether the use of military force in Iraq was the right decision (45% now call it right; 47% deem it wrong). Pew polling also finds that 53% of the public agree that the U.S. should bring its troops home as soon as possible.

In this, Rep. Paul was the only debater in tune with the larger electorate. Paul — who FOX News viewers ranked second in the debate, with 25% of the vote (submitted via text message) — was asked if his position for withdrawal made him a more appropriate candidate for the Democratic nomination rather than the Republican nomination. He responded that a majority of Americans want out of Iraq and he cited former President Reagan and Reagan’s handling of the conflict in Lebanon as an example of a Republican leader who decided withdrawal from the Middle East was the best course.

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Encouraging Terrorists – Strong opposition to terrorism was a recurring position, with both McCain and former mayor Rudy Giuliani emphasizing that should the U.S. fail in Iraq, terrorists will follow American troops home. The recent aborted attack on U.S. troops at Fort Dix by homegrown terrorists was a frequent example. In this the candidates, again with the exception of Paul, are also in tune with their base. Two-in-three Republicans (67%) agree that if the U.S. withdraws its troops from Iraq while the country is still unstable it would make a terrorist attack in the United States more likely.

The public as a whole is divided with 45% believing an attack would be more likely and 43% saying it would not make a difference. When asked generally about the war on terrorism, 64% of Republicans think the war in Iraq has helped the war on terrorism; only 38% of the general public agrees.

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Handling of the War – Gov. Mike Huckabee laid out a position on Iraq, that while clearly in support of the war, questioned how the war had been run, as have other candidates. Huckabee noted that it costs more to do something over again than to do it right the first time and said he would be ready to listen to his generals on the war. Pew polling finds that almost half (49%) of Republicans would prefer a Republican candidate who will take a different approach than George W. Bush to the situation in Iraq, while 43% want a candidate who will continue Bush’s policies.

Causes of 9-11

The debate’s most dramatic moment occurred with Rudy Giuliani and Ron Paul’s exchange on the role that U.S. foreign policy played in leading to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Giuliani quickly moved to assert his strong opposition to Paul’s expressed opinion that America’s foreign engagement in the Middle East led to the attacks. Giuliani’s position is strongly shared by the rest of his party: In a 2004 Pew poll, only 17% of Republicans agreed that U.S. wrongdoing may have motivated the attacks, compared with 51% of Democrats and 45% of independents.

Use of Torture

Brit Hume’s question on a hypothetical terrorist attack led to a debate among the front runners on the use of torture by Americans. Gov. Mitt Romney and Giuliani asserted that they would use “enhanced interrogation” in such a situation, while McCain stated firmly that torture should not be used by Americans, although he seemed to make a possible exception for extreme circumstances. Most Republicans see at least some instances when the use of torture is justified: 20% believe torture is often justified, 35% believe it is sometimes justified, while 22% believe it is rarely justified and only 21% believe it is never justified.

Dealing with Iran

Behind Iraq, the question of dealing with Iran was the most prominently discussed foreign policy issue – a priority that accords well with the views of the GOP base. Among Republicans and Republican-leaners, by a margin of 34% to 20%, more view Iran as a greater danger to the U.S. than Iraq. It was also wise for those standing on stage to take a firm stand against Iran: 60% of Republicans believe it is more important to be firm with Iran, than to avoid a military conflict (28%). By contrast, the country as a whole is evenly split, with 43% favoring being firm, and 43% believing it is more important to avoid military conflict.

Education

Gov. Romney was asked for a position that he has changed on that runs in opposition to Republican opinion. In response Romney cited his change of heart on the Department of Education, and his support for President Bush and the No Child Left Behind legislation. However, Pew polling shows that Romney’s new position may be more in tune with the GOP base than was his previous one: Fully 67% of Republicans support the president’s handling of education.

Abortion

While abortion emerged as the most talked-about domestic issue of the evening, only 7% of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters rate it the most important issue in choosing a candidate.

Giuliani attempted to divert attention from his position on abortion by emphasizing that while the base may disagree with him on this issue, the alternative of a Hillary Clinton presidency is a much more dire option — not a bad strategy in a party where 72% have a very or mostly unfavorable view of Clinton. He also stressed that he personally abhorred abortion though he still felt that it was a woman’s right to choose.

The other candidates who addressed the issue at all — Romney, explaining his shift to an anti-abortion position, Gov. Mike Huckabee, Gov. Jim Gilmore and Sen. Sam Brownback — affirmed their strong pro-life beliefs.

Guiliani’s more permissive views on abortion, however, are not out of step with many among the Republican base. In a July 2006 Pew survey, only a minority of Republicans (38%) thought that abortion was morally wrong in nearly all circumstances, a view shared by 24% of the overall public.

A November 2006 survey of registered voters found that while only 16% of Republicans felt that abortion should be generally available (and 32% of the general public), most in the GOP did not favor a total ban: only 18% of Republicans said that abortion should not be permitted at all, while 43% condoned abortion only in the case of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother and 21% favoring it being allowed more broadly but with stricter limits. And fully 62% of Republicans in a July 2006 poll expressed the view that the country needs to find a middle ground on abortion laws, while 34% saw no room for compromise on the issue.

Immigration

Rep. Tom Tancredo and Rep. Duncan Hunter took the harshest lines on the need for tougher immigration laws, singling out McCain for being out of step with the party on the issue because of his co-sponsorship of a reform bill with Sen. Ted Kennedy. But Republican views on this issue are more nuanced.

While 85% of Republicans completely or mostly agree that we should restrict and control people coming into our country more than we do now, half (50%) of Republicans favor allowing undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. for several years to gain legal working status and a path to citizenship. Conservative Republicans differ only slightly in these views, with 45% favoring a path to citizenship and 50% opposing it.

There is widespread support though, for a border fence, with 65% of Republicans favoring building the fence compared with only 38% of Democrats. The debaters, especially Guiliani and Romney, made a point of expressing strong support for border security.

Homosexuals

Moderator Chris Wallace raised the issue of support for gay rights in questioning the bona fides of Guiliani, McCain (who voted against a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage) and Romney (who once said he was a stronger advocate of gay rights than Ted Kennedy). Guiliani did not respond, McCain responded only in the general context of the need to build consensus on issues like immigration in Congress and Romney stressed that while he opposed discrimination he also strongly opposed marriage other than between a man and woman.

In opposing legalizing gay marriage, Romney is on strong GOP ground. Nearly eight-in-ten Republicans (77%) oppose gay marriage (compared with 56% of the general public). However, McCain’s position is not significantly out of step with either Republicans or the public on the issue of a constitutional ban: Only 58% of Republicans favor such a ban along with 54% of the broader public. On the more general question of the sources of a person’s sexual orientation, the views of Republicans are only slightly more conservative than those of the country as a whole: 27% of Republicans say that persons are born homosexual (compared with 36% of the general public); 18% say homosexuality is developed because of upbringing (vs.13% overall); 44% say it is a lifestyle preference (vs. 38% of the general public).

Global Warming

Only one question in the debate addressed global warming. Rep.Tancredo was asked how we should deal with the problem, and if the U.S. bears a special responsibility for the phenomenon. Tancredo stressed that there are still two sides to the debate, saying reports claiming it is our fault “stack up” equally against reports saying the opposite.

Tancredo’s opinion lines up with that of other Republicans, only 29% of whom told a recent Pew survey that the globe is getting warmer mostly because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels, compared with 46% of the general public that expresses that view. As for dealing with the problem, 62% of the country believes that global warming is a problem that requires immediate government action, compared with only 38% of Republicans.

Taxes and Spending

The candidates made clear their dislike of federal taxes (e.g., Romney: “I want to make it very clear that I am not going to raise taxes.”) Only Sen. McCain, in defending his opposition to President Bush’s 2001 tax cuts, mentioned a need to first rein in spending before reducing revenues. Indeed, McCain blamed loss of control over federal spending for the GOP’s 2006 election losses. Guiliani and Romney also stressed their budget cutting records as governors and pledged to do the same as president.

In emphasizing tax cuts over spending cuts, however, the candidates are clearly in tune with the Republican base as well as the larger public. While 86% of Republicans rate reducing the federal budget deficit as a top (42%) or important (44%) national priority — essentially the same percentage as the general public although Democrats are somewhat more likely to call it a top priority (57%) — equally large numbers call for reducing federal income taxes on the middle class. Among Republicans, 88% call middle class tax cuts a top (49%) or important (39%) priority and 82% favor making federal income tax cuts now in law permanent. (They are joined in their preference for middle class tax cuts by 83% of the general public though general support for making the tax cuts permanent is somewhat lower at 68%.)

Similarly, the strong if generally vague assaults on government spending issued by many of the candidates should fall on receptive ears. Fully 61% of Republicans (and a like number among the general public) told a recent Pew survey that they completely or mostly agreed that “when something is run by government, it is usually inefficient or wasteful.”

But the candidates may be wise to remain unspecific about what programs they would cut. The same survey found 58% of Republicans and 69% of the overall public saying that “it is the responsibility of government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves.” Indeed, support for safety net programs has resurged in recent years — nearly seven in ten among the public (69%) now say that the government should guarantee food and shelter for all, up 10 points since 1994.

Still, Republicans are more restrained in their support for federal programs. While 54% of the public supports increasing help for needy people even if federal debt increases — up from 41% in 1994 — only 34% of Republicans share this opinion.