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November 01, 2013 3:20 PM Cautionary Notes on Likelihood of GOP Split

By Ed Kilgore

One of the biggest questions in American politics today is whether the ongoing radicalization of the Republican Party will at some point lose it some previously loyal voters. So it’s not surprising some Democrats (and even Republicans) seize on evidence of disgruntlement leading to future defections.

Today’s new revelations from the latest NBC/WSJ survey on favorable/unfavorable ratings for the GOP among its rank-and-file will doubtless fan speculation about a potential split. They show GOP favorability among self-identified Republicans dropping to 49/26 (as compared to 73/7 among Democrats). Moreover, non-Tea Party Republicans are exhibiting significantly more disgruntlement (41/32) than Tea Party Republicans (56/21). On top of that, in a hypothetical three-way generic congressional contest involving a Democrat, and Republican, and a third party/independent candidate, non-Tea GOPer are more likely to go indie (32% as opposed to 25% for Tea Folk). Chuck Todd and his colleagues at NBC’s First Read place a lot of stock in these latter numbers indicating that threats of defection from the GOP are now graver from “the center” than “the right.”

Maybe, but maybe not. When you stare at all these numbers, some problems emerge.

For one thing, while Republicans are broken down into Tea and Non-Tea factions, independents are not. Given the past tendency of Tea Folk to disproportionately identify as indies even though they almost all vote overwhelmingly Republican, Republican identifiers within the Tea Nation are obviously going to be relatively quite loyal.

More importantly, happiness and unhappiness with the current condition of the GOP is likely to have different meanings for different Republicans. If one stipulates that the GOP is dangerously right-wing these days, the numbers look a little different: add together the 56% of Tea Folk who feel good about it with the 21% who likely think the party should be more conservative, plus the 41% of non-Tea GOPers who are happy with the party’s direction, and you don’t exactly have a mandate for moderation, do you? (And this is totally aside from the reality that Tea Folk are significantly more likely to participate in Republican primaries).

As for the third-party support findings, they are indeed interesting, but in the absence of any identification of what kind of ideology an indie/third-party would stand for, it’s really just an indication of party loyalty, which brings us full circle. Fully 61% of self-identified indies in the survey say they’d support an indie/third-party candidate, but it’s hard to know what if anything that means if you don’t know whether we’re talking about a hard-core Tea Party candidate or some sort of Michael Bloomberg “centrist.”

So while pursuing a split in the GOP is obviously an important Grand Strategy goal for Democrats—it’s been a big part of Obama’s Grand Strategy from the get-go—and while Democrats are much happier with their party than Republicans, it’s a bit early for the Donkey Party to declare any kind of victory or even a major advance. If you add in the fact that elected officials are massively less likely to defy party discipline than the rank-and-file, perhaps the most we can say is that the preconditions for a GOP split are coming into view, but still at a great distance until such time as we see more evidence.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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