In much of the handwringing coming from Republican quarters following the sweeping — if narrow — defeat of Mitt Romney by President Barack Obama, an oft-heard refrain has been “Republicans would win easily if only they became more moderate on social issues.”
But while economic conservatism has an appeal that can move social liberals into the Republican column from time to time, social conservatives remain a core majority of those who do vote Republican. According to a Fox News national exit poll, 36% of Americans continue to oppose abortion, and 77% of those voters voted for Romney. This adds up to 30% of the total electorate and 60% of Romney voters.
Given that social conservatives form a majority of core Republican voters, there are two risks inherent in a strategy that seeks compromise on social issues: whether social conservatives will continue to vote Republican if the party abandons its rigid social positions, and if so, whether the Republicans can swing enough Democratic voters to make up for the likely alienation of the social conservative base.
The sharp drop in the percentage of pro-choice Republicans being elected in primary and general elections indicates that social conservatives are unlikely to opt for pro-choicers just because they’ve signed the Grover Norquist anti-tax pledge.
In contrast, while few have attempted to adopt such a position so far, there exists considerable potential for socially conservative politicians to broaden and deepen their support bases by moderating on economic issues. For starters, 21% of anti-abortion voters went for Obama. Undoubtedly, a large percentage of them considered economic issues of more importance than the abortion issue given Obama’s positions.
The fast-growing Hispanic electorate also has sympathies for social conservatism, which could become decisive if they encounter Republican candidates they can live with on economic issues and on immigration. Catholic blue-collar white voters in states like Ohio, Michigan and in the Northeast could also potentially be picked off if they are given an opportunity to vote their economic as well as their religious self-interest.
So, why is this relevant now? Because there is a pivotal opportunity for any Republican who wants to have any credibility as an economic moderate looming with the coming deliberations over the “Fiscal Cliff,” the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts, particularly on the ultra-wealthy. Any Republican who votes against the top-earner tax cuts is likely to be hailed for his or her “independence” and moderation, both because of the merits of the issue, and because of their role in undermining the ability of House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to turn the “Fiscal Cliff” into a Mexican standoff.
Now, nearly all Republicans on Capitol Hill have signed Grover Norquist’s No New Taxes pledge, so there appear few likely candidates at first glance who would move in a socially-conservative, fiscally-moderate direction. But surely some realize that a political platform consisting of “no taxes on anyone, no abortion for anyone” doesn’t allow much room to maneuver in the face of a changing electorate. With the risks of moderating on abortion are too high in some regions, moderating on economics offers the only real escape route.
Indeed, allowing the emergence of a socially conservative, fiscally moderate faction to emerge could be hugely beneficial to Republicans. It offers the opportunity to broaden the base without alienating the base. The price, however, will be to lose some key economic battles that will likely define the success of President Obama’s second term, and to spark friction with the economic conservatives who deliver most of the Republicans’ funding and its Tea Party zeal. But within the GOP, despite the post-election handwringing, the social conservatives still hold the upper hand. And playing that hand by playing ball with the president on economics may be what it takes to make it a winning hand in 2014 and 2016.
Mike Klein is a former US political consultant who has worked with candidates of both parties and is now based in Amsterdam and Copenhagen.