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Whither the GOP? Republicans Want Change, But Split over Party’s Direction

Ryan Has Broader Appeal in GOP than Paul, Rubio or Christie


Coming off of two consecutive presidential election defeats, most Republican voters believe that their party must address major problems to be more competitive in the future. And roughly six-in-ten say improved messaging alone will not be enough – the GOP also needs to reconsider some of its positions.

Yet while Republicans may agree on the scope of the problem, there is little consensus over the party’s future course on either policy or strategy.

GOP Voters Say Party Needs to Change But Little Agreement on Direction

Move in a more conservative or moderate direction on policy? By 54% to 40%, Republican and Republican-leaning voters want the party’s leaders to move further to the right. Not surprisingly, conservatives and those who agree with the Tea Party overwhelmingly favor moving in a more conservative direction, while moderates and liberals would like to see the party take more centrist positions. Yet the more moderate wing of the party is a minority generally, and makes up an even smaller share of the likely primary electorate.

Has the GOP compromised too much, or not enough? Republican voters are divided: 35% say the party has compromised too much with Democrats, 27% say not enough, while 32% say party leaders have handled this about right. On this tactical question the Tea Party stands apart: about half (53%) think party leaders have already compromised too much with Democrats, compared with just 22% of non-Tea Party Republicans.

GOP Voters Divided over Party's Stances on Abortion, Gay Marriage

The Pew Research Center’s latest national survey, conducted July 17-21, 2013, among 1,480 adults, including 497 Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters, finds broad dissatisfaction among GOP voters with the party’s positions on a number of issues. And while the general sentiment is that the party should commit to more conservative positions, two issues stand out. On abortion and gay marriage about as many Republicans want the party to move in a more moderate direction as support a more conservative stance.

Most Republicans also feel change is needed on two other issues – immigration and government spending – and on both the balance of opinion tilts toward taking a more conservative approach. On immigration, more Republicans say the party is not conservative enough than say it is too conservative, by roughly two-to-one. That margin is about four-to-one when it comes to the party’s position on government spending.

Among five issues tested, on only one – gun policy – do a majority of voters say the party’s position is about right.

Amidst these debates, no single figure stands out as the current leader of the Republican Party; in fact when asked who they see as the leader of the party these days more volunteer that nobody is (22%) than the most mentioned name, Speaker of the House John Boehner (10%). This is typical for parties out of power. In 2006, for instance, Democratic voters were unable to point to a single leader for their party.

At the same time, however, several prominent Republicans are quite popular with Republican and Republican-leaning voters. Of these, Rep. Paul Ryan stands out as having the most positive image among GOP voters (65% favorable). Not only is Ryan highly visible after his vice-presidential run, but the vast majority of those who know him view him favorably.

Among GOP Figures, Ryan Viewed Most Favorably

Sen. Rand Paul also has a very positive image (55% favorable), as does Sen. Marco Rubio (50%). Sen. Ted Cruz is not as well known as other GOP figures, but his image is quite positive among those who are familiar with him, particularly among those who identify with the Tea Party.

Chris Christie, by comparison, draws a more mixed reaction among the roughly three-quarters of Republicans who offer an opinion; 47% view him favorably while 30% say they have an unfavorable impression of the New Jersey governor.

Both of the party’s congressional leaders – John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – receive more favorable than unfavorable marks from Republicans, but by slimmer margins than other GOP political figures.

While the survey’s focus is on the GOP’s internal debate, the Democratic Party, too, faces internal tensions. Just as with the Republicans, about a third (31%) of Democrats and Democratic-leanin

Views of Compromise Similar among Voters in Both Parties

g voters say their party has compromised too much with the opposition party in Congress, while another third (32%) say it has not compromised enough.

Unlike Republicans, however, most Democrats (57%) say their leaders in Washington should move in a more moderate direction. Just 35% of Democratic voters say the party should move in a liberal direction, compared with the 54% of Republicans who say their party’s leaders should be more conservative.

Inside the GOP Electorate

Tea Party Republicans have influence in the GOP partly because of their high level of political engagement. Overall, they make up a mino

Tea Party's Stronger Influence in GOP Primaries

rity (37%) of all Republicans and Republican-leaning independents nationally. Yet this group is more likely than other GOP voters to say they always vote in primary elections; as a result they make up about half of the Republican primary electorate (49%).

Far more Tea Party Republican voters identify as conservatives than as moderates. But conservatives also make up about half of GOP voters who disagree with the Tea Party or have no opinion.1 Overall, 27% of all GOP voters are non-Tea Party conservatives, while 29% are moderates who do not agree with the Tea Party.

Broad Agreement that GOP Needs to Make Changes

There is general agreement across all segments of the party that the GOP needs to address major problems in order to be more successful in future presidential elections: 69% of Tea Party Republican voters say this, along with 65% of non-Tea Party Republican voters.

Non-Tea Party Republicans More Likely to Say GOP Needs to Reconsider Policy Positions

But there are significant divisions over whether addressing those changes involves shifting policy positions – and, if so, what direction those shifts might take.

Tea Party Republicans are split on the question of whether the Republican Party “mainly needs to make a stronger case for its current policy positions” or if it “also needs to reconsider some of its policy positions” (51% vs. 46%). But 70% of non-Tea Party Republicans, including 79% of moderates, say the Republican Party needs to reconsider some policies.

What Policy Positions Does the Party Need to Reconsider

There is no consensus among GOP voters who think the party needs to reconsider some policy positions about what those positions are. About one-in-five (19%) say the party needs to reconsider its position on immigration and border security, 18% abortion and 11% cite gay marriage, gay rights or homosexuality.

These responses have a “long tail” – numerous issues receive mentions by relatively small percentages (less than 5%) of those who believe the party needs to reconsider some positions. A third (33%) of Republican voters who say the party needs to rethink some of its stances could not come up with a specific issue.

Republicans Divided over Party’s Course on Major Issues

Fully 69% of Tea Party Republican voters want Republican leaders in Washington to move in a more conservative direction. That compares with just 43% of all non-Tea Party Republicans and just 24% of moderates who do not agree with the Tea Party.

These differences are reflected in GOP voters’ views about the party’s future direction on major issues, including same-sex marriage, abortion and government spending.

Wide Gaps Within GOP over Party's Positions on Social Issues

Some of the starkest intraparty divisions are over same-sex marriage and abortion: Just a third (33%) of Republican voters characterize the GOP’s position on gay marriage as “about right.”

A majority (56%) of moderate non-Tea Party Republicans say the party’s position on gay marriage is too conservative. That compares with just 22% of Tea Party Republicans and 21% of GOP conservatives who do not agree with the Tea Party. Among the latter groups, more say the party’s stance on gay marriage is not conservative enough (35% of Tea Party, 34% of non-Tea conservatives) than say it is too conservative.

Similarly, 44% of moderate non-Tea Party Republicans say the party is too conservative on abortion; fewer than half as many Tea Party Republicans (16%) and non-Tea Party conservatives (18%) agree.

With major debates ahead in Congress over government spending, fully 61% of Tea Party Republicans say the party is not conservative enough on this issue. Just 33% say the GOP is handling the issue of government spending about right. Far more Tea Party Republicans say the party is insufficiently conservative on this issue than on the other four issues tested.

There is less support for a more conservative stance on spending among other GOP voters. About half of conservative non-Tea Party Republicans (47%) say the party’s position on government spending is not conservative enough; about as many (44%) say it is handling the issue about right. Among moderates who do not agree with the Tea Party, just 25% say the party is too conservative on spending while about twice as many (53%) say its position is about right.

Views of Compromise

Tea Party Republicans Say Party Has Already Compromised Too Much

Overall, 35% of GOP voters say that, in dealing with Democrats, congressional Republicans have compromised too much. Slightly fewer (27%) say they have not compromised enough, while 32% say they have handled this about right.

About half (53%) of Tea Party Republicans say the party has compromised too much with Democrats, while just 12% say it has not compromised enough. By contrast, 39% of Republicans who are not affiliated with the Tea Party say there has not been enough compromise; 22% say there has been too much.

GOP Primary Voters More Likely to See Too Much Compromise

Republican voters who say they always vote in party primaries are less amenable to compromising with Democrats than are those who vote less often. About four-in-ten (42%) Republicans who always vote in primaries say there has been too much compromise with Democrats in Congress; 28% of those who vote less often say the same. Less frequent voters are more likely to say that Republican leaders in Congress have not compromised enough with Democrats (32% vs. 22% of those who always vote in primaries).

Favorability of Leading GOP Figures

Among seven prominent Republicans tested, all of whom garner more favorable than unfavorable ratings, Paul Ryan enjoys the most positive image. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of Republican and Republican-leaning voters view the former vice-presidential candidate favorably while just 15% have an unfavorable view. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio also are popular; about half have favorable impressions of each, while only about two-in-ten have unfavorable impressions.

About half (47%) of Republican voters also rate Chris Christie positively, yet unfavorable opinions of the New Jersey governor (at 30%) are higher than for Ryan, Paul or Rubio. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, while not very well known among GOP voters, is rated positively (33% favorable, 13% unfavorable).

Ryan Has Broad Appeal, Christie Viewed More Unfavorably by Tea Party Republicans

Ryan, Paul and Cruz are viewed more positively by Tea Party Republicans than among others in the party. By contrast, Christie’s unfavorable

No Clear Republican Party Leader

 rating among Tea Party Republicans (35%) is the highest of any Republican tested.

While there is no consensus on who is the leader of the Republican Party currently (this is common for the party not holding the presidency), many of these figures elicited mentions from respondents, with House Speaker John Boehner leading the list (named by 10% of respondents).

Boehner is viewed favorably by 44% of GOP voters, and unfavorably by nearly three-in-ten (29%). Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell remains comparatively less well known (40% don’t provide an opinion), with 36% rating McConnell favorably while 24% rate him unfavorably.

Fewer GOP Voters Agree with Tea Party than in 2010

Currently about four-in-ten (42%) Republicans and Republican leaning registered voters say they agree with the Tea Party movement. This is little changed over the course of the last year, but down from the height of the movement in 2010, when a

Tea Party Agreement Levels Out Among Republican Electorate

majority of Republican voters identified with the Tea Party.

Although 56% of GOP voters do not agree with the Tea Party, this is mostly non-opinion rather than active disagreement: 44% say they have no opinion of the movement, while 11% disagree with the Tea Party.

Tea Party Republicans Older, More Male, Evangelical, Educated

The segment of the Republican electorate that is affiliated with the Tea Party differs substantially from other Republican voters, both demographically and ideologically.

Overall, Republican voters are evenly divided by gender. Six-in-ten (60%) Tea Party Republicans, by contrast, are male.

Those who agree with the Tea Party are also considerably older (67% are 50 or older, compared with just 52% of other Republicans). A third (33%) of Tea Party Republicans have at least a college degree, compared with 23% of other Republicans. Similarly, Tea Party Republicans are more affluent than others affiliated with the GOP.

White evangelicals—who are 31% of all Republican voters—are 36% of those affiliated with the Tea Party.

Fully 80% of Republicans who agree with the Tea Party movement are conservative; just 19% say they are moderate or liberal. Other Republicans are more divided; among those who do not affiliate with the Tea Party, about half (48%) say they are conservative, while 51% say they are moderate (42%) or liberal (9%).

  1.  While the majority of those in this group self- identify as moderate (82%), it also includes 18% who identify as liberal.
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