Commentary

Christensen: Democrats look inside the GOP mind

rchristensen@newsobserver.comOctober 19, 2013 

Senate candidate Mark Harris (left photo) and Thom Tillis (right photo).

It was sort of an exercise in cultural anthropology. The Democrats decided to try to get inside the mind of the modern Republican Party and find out what makes it tick.

Why do they have such strong feelings about President Barack Obama and the new health care law? Why did they gamble on a such a controversial tactic as a government shutdown?

The exercise, called the “Republican Party Project,” was conducted for Democracy Corps, a Washington-based group founded by two members of former Democratic President Bill Clinton’s political brain trust, Stan Greenberg and James Carville. As part of their research, the firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner polled Republicans nationally and held a series of focus groups – two in Raleigh, two up the road in Roanoke, Va., and two in Colorado Springs, Colo.

What they found is a GOP political base that is very concerned about the country’s future as well as their own.

“Understand that the (GOP) base thinks they are losing politically and losing control of the country – and their starting reaction is ‘worried,’ ‘discouraged,’ ‘scared’ and ‘concerned’ about the direction of the country – and a little powerless to change course,” Greenberg and Carville write. “They think that Obama has imposed his agenda, while Republicans in D.C. let him get away with it.”

Three blocs

The study breaks the GOP into three major blocs.

• Evangelicals, the largest bloc with about one-third of the base: “Social issues are central for evangelicals, and they feel a deep sense of cultural and political loss. They believe their towns, communities and schools are suffering from a deep ‘culture rot’ that has invaded from outside. The central focus here is homosexuality, but also the decline of homogenous small towns. They like the tea party because they stand up to the Democrats.”

• Tea partiers, 20 percent of the base: “Big government, Obama, the loss of liberty and decline of responsibility are central to the tea party worldview,” the study found. “Obama’s America is an unmitigated evil based on big government, regulations and dependency. They’re not focused on social issues at all. They like the tea party because it is getting ‘back to basics’ and believe it has the potential to reshape the GOP.” (A Pew Research Survey in July found that tea party Republicans make up 49 percent of the GOP primary electorate.)

“Our freedoms are getting taken away all the time with more regulation and rules,” said one tea party man in Raleigh. “And we let it happen. ... We’re not going to have any left.”

• Moderates, 25 percent of the base: “Moderates are deeply concerned with the direction of the country and believe Obama has taken it down the wrong path economically. They are centrally focused on market-based economics, small government, and eliminating waste and inefficiency. They are largely open to progressive social policies, including on gay marriage and immigration. They disdain the tea party and have a hard time taking Fox News seriously.”

(The three categories don’t add up to 100 percent because some Republicans don’t fall into recognizable categories.)

Trouble for Tillis?

The report notes that evangelicals and tea party supporters now dominate the GOP, making up more than 50 percent.

If this is true, then it explains why former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a moderate conservative, struggled to win his party’s nomination. It also helps explain why GOP Gov. Pat McCrory, a center-right fiscal conservative, got rolled by a more conservative legislature. And it could mean that House Speaker Thom Tillis, a business conservative, will not have an easy path to the GOP Senate nomination next May.

To understand the determination of Republicans to use the threat of a government shutdown to block the president’s health care program, the report said, you have to understand that many in the GOP feel “they are losing ground and Obama has won his socialist agenda. ... They believe he is building dependent minorities that will give the Democrats a governing majority.”

So if you believe the America you grew up in is disappearing and if you see the health care law as some sort of political Alamo, then the events of the past few weeks make sense and tea party hero Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas begins to look more and more like Davy Crockett.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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