Before last year’s midterm elections, I suggested to you on this page that Republicans have two years left to decide: Are they the party of Ronald Reagan, or the party of Donald Trump? A party of deeply held conservative principles, enhanced by Reagan’s high-minded optimism and penchant for compromise? Or a party of authoritarian, populist impulses, driven by Trump’s dark and pessimistic vision of America as “a nation in decline”?
For those of us hoping that Republican voters will make the first choice, recent months have provided little cause for optimism. Senator Tim Scott’s withdrawal from the presidential primary earlier this month — coupled with polling data collected over the past year — suggests many GOP voters are still on Trump’s populist skid, despite growing record electoral losses.
The early and sudden exit of Sen. Scott’s exit from the primary is a sad reminder of how far the GOP has strayed from Ronald Reagan’s guiding principles. While other candidates have struggled to distinguish themselves from Trump without alienating the party’s base, Scott stands out on several key points of difference. More than any other candidate in the field, he embodies the legacy of Ronald Reagan, with a campaign message that echoes the promise of “Morning in America.”
On the campaign trail, Scott spoke optimistically of the opportunities America afforded him, framing his campaign in terms of “freedom and hope and opportunity” while pushing back against Trump’s pessimistic message by saying that America is a nation of opportunity, and “not. a nation in decline.”
Furthermore, unlike many of his fellow Republicans, Scott has historically shown a greater willingness to compromise with Democrats in the interest of policy reform. Still, Scott’s struggle to gain support in a primary race that continues to be dominated by Trump is always a bad sign for those of us who hope the GOP will opt for a return to Reagan’s brand of principled conservative and pragmatic compromise.
In fact, in a survey conducted earlier this year by the University of South Florida, we found that Republican voters increasingly reject the “politics of compromise,” with nearly a quarter (24%) say they want to see Republicans achieve their policy. goals without any compromise, while the other 46% are ready to accept only small compromises with the Democrats.
In the same survey, 27% of Republicans said they were open to “equal” compromise between Democrats and Republicans, compared to a large plurality (44%) of Democrats.
The implications of these trends have been seen in Washington in recent months, as Republicans struggle to coalesce around their own party leadership in Congress, while the right wing of the party insists on uncompromised spending bill that has no reasonable chance of being adopted by. law.
Although naturally preferring to advance its own values, the GOP’s refusal to engage in policy negotiations with Democrats comes at a time when nearly half of American voters identify as “independent,” and given of voters the Democrats control the Senate and the executive branch.
This inability of Republican leaders (and voters) to “read the room” bears little resemblance to Ronald Reagan’s record of pragmatic compromise. And yet, it was Reagan who successfully advanced conservative principles and was largely re-elected, while today’s rigidly uncompromising GOP has become a reality TV sideshow, recognized primarily for the public’s conflict and ineffective management.
Perhaps buoyed by President Joe Biden’s historically low approval ratings, Republicans have been surprisingly unmoved by a growing record of electoral losses. Earlier this month, Democrat Andy Beshear was re-elected as governor of Kentucky, defeating a Trump-endorsed candidate in the heavily red state that Trump himself carried by 26 points in 2020.
Simultaneously, Republican candidates and policies suffered shocking defeats in Virginia and Ohio, which immediately followed a shockingly poor performance by MAGA candidates supported by Trump in the 2022 midterm elections.
However, the remaining GOP presidential candidates continue to tiptoe around Trump’s damaging effect on the party, his wanton criminal activities and his lack of commitment to (to say the least in) traditional conservative values.
Perhaps the most telling sign that Republican voters are losing their connection to Ronald Reagan’s message on “Morning in America” came last year, in a survey I ran before the midterms. that election. In it, I asked respondents to comment on America’s future, and whether they felt our country’s best days were behind us or yet to come.
On the other hand, the answers are discouraging. The COVID-19 pandemic, rampant inflation and a decade of hyperpartisan politics have clearly hurt the American electorate, with a narrow majority (56%) saying they fear “our best years are behind us.” But among Republican voters, this sentiment is even worse. Nearly 62% of Republicans express this opinion, while only 1 in 4 (25%) feel that our best days are yet to come (a belief that Ronald Reagan held at the core of his being ).
When I wrote to you a year ago about the GOP’s “time of choice,” I suggested that it would be easy for Republicans to choose between Ronald Reagan’s optimistic commitment to conservative values and the Donald Trump’s pessimistic and dishonest brand of authoritarian populism. I believe the contrast between Reagan’s unparalleled political success and Trump’s repeated electoral failure is self-evident.
But last year I seem to have made a mistake. Instead, it appears that Republican voters have moved away from the values and values that once helped them carry 49 of the 50 states in the Electoral College. For the past four years, this has been a losing strategy for the GOP; There is little reason to believe that 2024 will be any different.
Stephen Neely is an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of South Florida, specializing in survey research and public opinion.