What’s the matter with conservatives?

Brandon J. Gaylord Editor-in-Chief, HorseRacePolitics.com
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Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas decried the inability of voters in the heartland to vote for their own economic interests. Frank suggested that conservatives were distracting these voters with social or “wedge” issues while working against them on fiscal issues. In other words, the voters were just too dumb to see they were voting for the wrong party (Of course wealthy Democrats who supported candidates vowing to raise their taxes were not taken into consideration).

Yet, in 2012, conservative voters also seem to be confused as to which party aligns with their interests. When all 129,068,630 votes for president were counted, Obama received millions of votes from what exit polls showed were right-leaning constituencies. Extrapolating the poll data, here are some intriguing figures:

  • Self-identified conservatives – 7,679,583
  • Attend church more than once a week – 6,505,059
  • White evangelical, born again – 7,047,147
  • No exceptions for abortion – 3,187,995
  • Support the Tea Party – 2,981,485
  • Named the deficit as their most important issue – 6,195,294
  • Wanted at least partial repeal of the Affordable Care Act – 9,486,544
  • Opposed tax increases on the wealthy – 10,390,024
  • Supported deportation for illegal immigrants with jobs – 8,673,411
  • Obama deserved more blame than Bush for economic problems – 2,452,303
  • Opposed legalization of gay marriage in their state – 14,842,892

Again, these are not potential voters who did not show up, but real voters who cast their ballot for President Obama.

While exit polling cannot overlay issues to definitively say that a voter believes A, B, C, and voted for a candidate, it certainly appears that a core group of between six and seven million voters identified as conservatives, were very religious, were most concerned about the deficit, wanted to repeal Obamacare, opposed raising taxes on the wealthy, wanted to deport working illegal immigrants, and opposed gay marriage, and voted for the incumbent anyway.

If these voters had just stayed home Mitt Romney would have won the popular vote. If just half of those voters supported Romney instead of Obama, the popular vote would have gone to Romney.

While the media and political consultants urge the Republican Party to moderate their issue positions, it is understandable why the party is resistant. It would certainly appear that a voter who could listen to Rush Limbaugh for a ride around the Capital Beltway without hearing anything they disagree with would be an easier convert than a moderate who may have strong reservations about the party’s social platform.

The immigration issue plays right into this conundrum for the GOP. The party must increase their share of the Latino vote to win national elections in the future, but at the same time, winning the advocates of mass deportation who voted for President Obama would have outweighed the entire Latino vote (a swing of about 17 million votes).

As Republicans lose overwhelming majorities of black, Latino, Asian, and gay voters there is less margin for error within traditionally conservative constituencies. Winning the millions of hard-right voters who supported President Obama in 2012 may provide the Republican Party a bit of a cushion while they build the infrastructure necessary to make inroads with minority voters.

Much like Karl Rove went after the four million “missing evangelicals” in 2004, the GOP needs to bring the six to seven million Obama-voting Conservatives into the fold for 2016 if they want to retake the White House.