By Jonathan Movroydis
Hoover senior fellows David Brady, Morris Fiorina, and Douglas Rivers have authored a new report on the future of the Republican Party.
In this Q&A, Brady and Fiorina detail where the Republican and Democratic parties have each stood historically on various policy issues beginning in the mid-1960s. Since that period, the parties have become increasingly polarized to an extent that today elected officials rarely share positions on major issues with their colleagues on the other side of the political aisle.
Brady and Fiorina describe the individual issues that currently advantage either party among the electorate; they argue that the further the Democrats shift leftward, the more likely it is that Republicans will be successful in future elections.
Brady and Fiorina explain how in recent decades rapid globalization resulted in an increased number of voters who hold populist views. They maintain that the Republican Party, motivated by a desire to keep these particular voters within its coalition, are becoming less likely to run candidates who hold more traditionally conservative views, such as opposition to deficit spending and the expansion of government.
The Hoover political scientists also assert, based on their polling and analysis, that Donald Trump will continue to be a formidable force within the Republican Party, but it is uncertain whether his presence will significantly shape the outcome of upcoming elections. They conclude that Trump opened a cleavage in the electorate, in which the Republicans are now clearly advantaged among non-college-educated voters and have declined in popularity among those who have bachelor’s and advanced degrees. Thus, the GOP’s biggest challenge, Brady and Fiorina say, is winning back support of suburban voters with higher levels of education.
Can you describe the genesis of this project?
David Brady: After Donald Trump lost the presidential election to Joe Biden in 2020, we wanted to poll voters on issues to help us understand in what direction the Republican Party was headed. We organized focus groups with Republicans, Democrats, and independents. We looked at changes that had occurred in the Republican Party since 1984, when Republicans started to pull even with the Democrats in party identification. A decade later, in 1994, the GOP achieved a landslide victory in the House of Representatives.
We documented demographic and ideological changes in the parties and featured Morris Fiorina’s work on the “sorting” of parties. Liberals had sorted into the Democratic Party, and conservatives in the South became Republican, making the parties more internally homogeneous and far more “polarized.” There are some moderates in both parties, but there is no significant intermixing between the parties.
We also looked at the issues that might affect the 2022 and 2024 election cycles. We found that there was nothing about the issues per se that would prohibit Republicans from being competitive. The results show that the further left the Democrats shifted, the more likely the Republicans were to be successful. In what I think is the most important part of this paper, we surmised what role Trump is going to play in upcoming election cycles. We conclude that the Trump factor is the major unknown.
Morris Fiorina: We have all kinds of tables in the paper, but as I teach students about America’s political history in the last half century, there are several striking examples that can best illustrate our analysis. In 1964, the most important piece of civil rights legislation since the Civil War was being filibustered in the Senate. The filibuster went on for 57 days. Who was filibustering the bill? Not Republicans; it was Southern Democrats. In fact, it passed only when a Republican from Illinois, then Senate minority leader Everett Dirksen, rounded up nineteen Republican Senate votes to break the filibuster.
Second, in 1970, President Richard Nixon, a Republican, established by executive order the Environmental Protection Agency. A few years after that, a group of environmental organizations successfully targeted the “Dirty Dozen” to defeat. These were members of the House of Representatives who stood in the way of environmental protection, one of the most prominent of which was Wayne Aspinall, the Democratic chairman of the Interior Committee.
Many major pieces of gun control legislation in the 1990s were either watered down or not passed at all because of the efforts of a very powerful representative from Michigan named John Dingell. It might be surprising to many that this Democratic politician was on the board of directors of the National Rifle Association. These examples point out that until about twenth-five years ago, there were pro-choice Republicans, pro-gun Democrats, Democrats who were against environmental protection, and Republicans who were for civil rights and racial liberalization policies.
All of that is gone now. Today, Democrats stand for liberal policies and Republicans for conservative ones. The two parties have sorted in a way that resembles the Christian Democrat and Social Democratic parties of Europe or British Labour and British Tories in the United Kingdom in much of the twentieth century. Historically, we had big heterogeneous parties that overlapped each other ideologically. But no more. It is a historical development that I do not think we fully understand, but it has enormous ramifications for our politics.
Was there any significant sorting that took place during the 2016 elections?
David Brady: In 2016, Donald Trump did not win a majority of the votes, but he did win the Electoral College. In 2020, he came very close to an Electoral College tie, which would have put the decision in the House of Representatives, where he would have certainly been re-elected. What that tells me first is that Trump is a turnout machine. He is a turnout machine for the Republicans as well as for Democrats. I read the 2020 election result as a rejection not of Trump’s policies but of the drama associated with his bombastic behavior, which was on full display in his tweets. I did not read it as a repudiation of the Republican party or its policies. In fact, Republicans gained seats down ticket. Had Trump not gone back into Georgia and depressed turnout among his own supporters by saying that the presidential election was stolen, the Republicans would have, in my view, maintained a majority in the Senate.
With this said, Trump is still the overwhelming favorite to be the Republican nominee in the 2024 presidential election. Does that mean he is going to play a significant role in the 2022 midterms? It all depends.
Morris Fiorina: I agree. I would also add that had the COVID-19 pandemic not occurred, Trump would have been re-elected. That simply took enough of his support away. Starting in 2016, Trump in many ways reoriented the Republican party on policy grounds. Back then, I suggested that the way in which Trump positioned himself on trade, immigration, and other issues of national sovereignty and the protection of the working class would resonate with voters. Imagine in 2020 a much more attractive and reasonable candidate came along with those same policies. That person would have been a stronger contender. There is no going back to Republicans who hold more orthodox positions, such as former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
Your polling analysis evaluating agreement with Trump’s endorsements of political candidates shows that 21 percent of Republicans would definitely support, 14 percent would probably support, and 10 percent would more likely support somebody that Trump endorsed, while 44 percent say that a Trump endorsement would have no effect on the way they would vote. Do you think Trump’s endorsement of Glenn Youngkin in the Virginia governor’s race had any significant impact on the election outcome?
David Brady: Glenn Youngkin played the game nicely. Although he did not campaign with the former president, Youngkin managed to maintain support from Trump voters. He aligned himself with important Trump policies, including tax cuts and a favorable trade balance with China. Youngkin also appealed to enough Democrats who voted for Biden in 2020 to swing the election in his favor. However, McAuliffe did give Youngkin a hand up by making that silly statement about how parents should not have much to do with their children’s education.
Morris Fiorina: Trump’s independent contribution to the recent election is debatable. We saw the same vote swing in New Jersey, where no one would argue Trump was a factor. There are enough other issues going against the Democrats right now, including high oil and gas prices and critical race theory being taught in schools, among others.
Your findings demonstrate that Republicans have gained among non-college-educated voters. With non-college Whites, they hold the majority. Among non-Whites of the same group, Republicans gained some ground in the 2020 election, especially among Hispanics in the border areas of Texas. Why is this so, and do you think the GOP can keep this trend going?
David Brady: I do not think the Republicans have to do anything. Biden is down significantly among independents. This is important, because as voters become more polarized, a small slice of the electorate is going to have more power in deciding who is going to win. Biden is polling poorly with independents on leadership, foreign policy, and affairs at the southern border. I do not think the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill is going to result in a positive shift in his direction. It is not over for him, but at this point Republicans do not have to press any policy. In this respect, the current dynamic is reverse of the 2020 election. In that case, all Biden had to do was not be Trump. This time the Republicans just need to not be Biden.
Morris Fiorina: Just to add a little bit to the college-educated versus non-college-educated cleavage: it appears for the first time in 2016, when the former went in large proportions to Clinton and the latter overwhelmingly voted for Trump. People with college degrees have done quite well for themselves in the last several decades. Working-class people have not. Trump is the first presidential candidate to explicitly target this group. Remember when he said, “I love the poorly educated.” His personal behavior is much more obnoxious to middle-class and upper-middle-class suburban people, especially women, than it is to working-class people.
Trump opened the cleavage. Now the question is, how can the Republicans win back suburban voters and people who have a higher level of education while holding on to these working-class voters?
David Brady: I agree. Suppose the Republicans take the House and the Senate in 2022. If Trump claims credit for those victories and declares his candidacy for 2024, I guarantee you that the Democrats will turn out in large numbers. And again, the next presidential election will be determined by four or five states.
In your polling and analysis, you talk about several issues in which Republicans have an advantage, including immigration, law and order, and tuition debt. For the GOP to be successful, how do you think they should leverage these issues among voters?
David Brady: Well, it is contextual, right? It depends on what the Democrats do. For example, when Terry McAuliffe made that mistake about parents’ involvement in education and unsuccessfully tried to make the election all about Trump, Youngkin made a persuasive case to voters against critical race theory being taught in schools.
On the issue of law and order, the Republicans have a clear advantage. The Democrats even lost a referendum in Minneapolis to defund the metropolitan police department. This policy did not even have support among their traditional voters, including African Americans. Law and order, the border, inflation are all issues in which the Republicans have an advantage. There are about fifty districts up for grabs, and therefore fifty or so different strategies Republicans will devise for positive election outcomes. In some districts, the GOP might emphasize education policy and in others they might stress tax reforms.
Do you see the Democrats moderating on any of these issues to broaden their appeal, or do you think they will double down on an increasingly leftist social policy?
David Brady: That is hard to say. Currently, there are now one hundred members of the Progressive Caucus. In terms of sorting, there are many more progressives than there used to be in the Democratic Party. There are still a lot of moderate Democrats, but they do not seem to have sway with the media and internally among the party.
Morris Fiorina: It is unlikely that progressives would easily accept a move toward the center. Many of them come from districts where more liberal policies are very popular. Even in districts that are more centrist, the most passionate Democratic primary constituents are very progressive.
David is right. Tactically, each side wants to unify its supporters and divide the opposition. The Republicans will want to exploit situations in which Democrats take positions that are furthest from the mainstream of the country. The polling data shows that the Democrats’ economic policies are not very popular right now. They also get killed on issues like critical race theory. I think in a sense it is unfortunate. Elections get fought over these kinds of issues while real problems go unaddressed. Nevertheless, I expect that the best way for Republicans to retain the populist base that Trump has brought into the party is not to follow traditional Republican economic policies, like fiscal restraint. Working-class Americans want a social safety net. They want Medicare and a well-funded Social Security system.
David Brady: I agree, absolutely. The important point here is that Donald Trump and the Republicans in Congress did not cut any of these programs during his tenure as president. The only legislative victory they had was their tax cut. They did not investigate the cost of Medicare over time. Traditionally, Republicans would have been worried about too much government spending. They would have asked, “How are we going to get Medicare and Social Security under control?” Those things did not happen under Trump. Now, given that Trump has a 16-to-17-point advantage among working-class White people without a college education, the Republicans are going to continue expanding these programs instead of seeking to reform them.
You write that Democrats are advantaged on taxation issues. This includes raising taxes on corporations and lowering taxes on small businesses. Why do you think Democrats are advantaged on the issue of lower taxes on small businesses, which always seemed winning for Republicans?
David Brady: Our analysis shows that large numbers of people favor taxing corporations and wealthier Americans more. These numbers are favorable to Democrats. However, if the Democrats go too far in increasing taxes and social spending, this advantage could slip away.
Over the long term, how do you think Republicans will adjust their future policy positions in comparison to the Democrats’ economic and social agenda?
Morris Fiorina: The big problem, which I described in my last book, Unstable Majorities, is that because sustaining majorities in Congress is so difficult, the parties’ perspectives have become, “We have to accomplish something while we still have the majority, because we may lose the next election.” The problem is, that is self-fulfilling. After the Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act in March 2010, they lost the House in the next election. Until a party that controls the government enacts policies that are acceptable to a broad spectrum of voters, the pendulum is just going to swing back and forth between the two parties. Thus, it becomes just a game of winning the next election rather than formulating strong policies.
David Brady: This dilemma is not unique to the United States. It is true across Europe as well, where you have the rise of populist parties who believe the elites have betrayed them with all sorts of bad policies. So, there are established parties versus others that claim they represent the common man. At this point in American politics, the Republican Party is taking greater advantage of the electorate’s embrace of populist policies.
One question we ask in our survey is, “Do you think the country would be better off if we left more decisions to elites?”
Sixty-two percent of Democrats think that elites should govern, as opposed to just six percent of Republicans. There is a lot of populist sentiment right now in the Western world, by and large because of the rush to globalization. In that rush, a lot of people have been left behind in the United States and Europe. These segments are most favorably disposed toward candidates who champion populist positions.