Immigration reform isn’t quite dead yet, but the political fall-out of immigration reform’s demise is pretty clear: the GOP rebrand is going to be pretty tough. Despite relatively favorable circumstances, immigration reform advocates weren’t able to drag the party toward the center. And if congressional Republicans can’t advance the rebrand by allowing losing issues—like a pathway to citizenship or background checks on gun purchases—to advance through Congress and depart from consideration in 2016, then the next Republican nominee will be left with the difficult task of broadening the appeal of the GOP.
Today, a new Pew Research survey suggests that Republican presidential candidates won’t find it easy to move toward the center. The poll shows that Republicans recognize the need for change—with 59 percent even suggesting they need to change on the issues. But when it comes to the specifics, most Republicans support maintaining the party’s current positions or even moving further to the right. When asked about the party’s current stance on gay marriage, immigration, government spending, abortion, and guns, at least 60 percent of Republicans said they thought the party was about right or too moderate.
Desire for change was greatest, if still very limited, on cultural conservative issues. On gay marriage, 31 percent of Republicans said they wanted the party to moderate. But 27 percent thought the party wasn’t conservative enough (do they want a return to sodomy laws?) and another 33 percent were satisfied with the party’s current stance. The numbers were similar on abortion: 25 percent wanted the party to moderate, but 26 percent thought the party wasn’t conservative enough, and another 41 percent were satisfied with the party’s current position.
On immigration, where the party’s current position is potentially less clear to voters, the Republican rank-and-file isn’t itching to get behind a compromise. 17 percent support moving to the left on immigration, compared to 36 percent who want the party to get more conservative. More generally, 67 percent of Republicans think the party is compromising too much or the right amount with Democrats.
Unfortunately, the poll offered fewer answers on economic issues, the center of much of the discussion of the Republican “rebrand.” The poll only asked about government spending, where Republicans are predictably all but unified—only 10 percent want the party to moderate, compared to 46 percent who want a more conservative stance and another 41 percent who are satisfied with the party’s current position. But the poll offers few answers on other economic issues, like taxes, Wall Street, or the various proposals for making the party more “populist” within its current ideological bounds. The degree of party unity on government spending, however, suggests that there might not be very much space for movement on economic issues.
With little Republican appetite for moderation, it’s not surprising that Rubio’s numbers have dropped. It’s also not surprising that he’s moving to reaffirm his conservative credentials on the push to defund Obamacare and ban abortion after twenty weeks. These numbers suggest that the Republicans won’t be eager to nominate someone pushing the party to moderate, at least on cultural issues and government spending. Chris Christie’s favorability ratings suggest as much: He’s only at plus-17, with 47 percent favorable and a sizable 30 percent holding an unfavorable opinion. That’s worse than Romney ever had, and it’s probably inconsistent with winning the Republican nomination.
The composition of the Republican primary electorate makes the challenge even greater. In the Pew poll, 49 percent of Republicans who participate in every primary support the tea party—just 22 percent consider themselves moderate. In last year’s primaries, evangelical Christians represented more than 40 percent of the electorate in just about every major contest, including relatively moderate Romney states like Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Florida.
Given today’s numbers and Mitt Romney’s difficulty securing the nomination, it’s highly unclear whether Republicans could nominate a candidate who wants to moderate the party. And if the primary process is unlikely to yield a candidate who can moderate the party, then the Republican House would be wise to preemptively bail out the next Republican candidate, and relieve them of the obligation to oppose a pathway to citizenship, background checks on gun purchases, or whatever else. That doesn't look like it will happen. Instead, it looks like Republicans will need to count on the appeal of their 2016 presidential candidate and economic fundamentals to overcome the party's limited appeal.