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What will unify the Republican Party? Probably the Democrats

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President Joe Biden stops to talk to the media as he drives a Ford F-150 Lightning truck at Ford Dearborn Development Center in Dearborn, Mich.

In this May 18, 2021, file photo, President Joe Biden stops to talk to the media as he drives a Ford F-150 Lightning truck at Ford Dearborn Development Center in Dearborn, Mich.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

A recent New York Times column wondered “Why Can’t The Republican Party Quit Trump?” It’s one of many opinion pieces written by those who long for the return of the pre-Trump Republican Party. Like many other such articles, this opinion piece wonders if the Republicans have become an “ideas-free party” that favors a fighting attitude over substantive policy concerns. 

However, the polling data tells an entirely different story. 

Since last fall, I’ve regularly asked a question about issue preferences: “Suppose you had a choice between four presidential candidates. All four had equal skills and temperament. Would you prefer a Republican who supported policies like President Trump, a more traditional Republican, a Democrat who supported policies similar to Sen. Bernie Sanders, or a more traditional Democrat?” 

The results show that when you take skills and temperament out of the equation, Trump-like policies are more popular than any other category. In last weekend’s survey, 31% of voters preferred a candidate promoting Trump-like policies; 21% wanted a Sanders-like policy approach; 21% would like to see traditional Democratic policies; and 17% were in the traditional Republican camp. 

Those numbers have been fairly steady since last October. One key observation is that just 38% favor the traditional policy approaches of either party. That suggests the traditional politics of an outgoing era are giving way to something new. 

At the moment, we have only vague hints of what that new era might look like. On the one hand, it’s clear that the GOP is no longer the party of George W. Bush or John McCain. Sixty-four percent (64%) of GOP voters prefer Trump-like policies. Just 28% support more traditional Republican policies. The internal policy battle is over. 

As a result, those who favor traditional Republican policy views find themselves forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. If they have to decide between a candidate pursuing Trump-like policies and a traditional Democrat, just 48% of these traditional Republicans would go with the Trump policy candidate. The rest would either vote for a traditional Democratic candidate (34%) or aren’t sure (18%). 

Numbers like that lead some to claim that Republicans must moderate their messaging to win back these voters. However, that assessment is ignoring an even more important factor.  

The biggest challenge for Republicans in the upcoming elections may be getting their voters to the polls without Trump on the ballot. Among those who prefer Trump-like policies, 10% say they are unlikely to support a candidate other than Trump pursuing those policies. Another 6% aren’t sure. It goes without saying that if those voters stay home, the GOP is in a lot of trouble. 

Looking at these numbers in isolation suggests that Republicans face an impossible trade-off. If they present a more moderate image to win back traditional Republicans, they risk depressing turnout among Trump supporters. Sounds like a no-win situation. 

But there’s still more to the story. Democrats have troubles of their own. Among those in President Biden’s party who prefer traditional Democratic policies, just 69% would vote for a Sanders’ Democrat over a traditional Republican. And, among those who prefer the populist policies of Bernie Sanders, 14% are open to voting for a Trump-like candidate over a traditional Democrat. 

The big takeaway from all this is that our political system is in a state of flux. Both parties have to worry about the tension between turning off their base or losing their traditionalists. In the short term, for the 2022 midterm elections, that dynamic is likely to favor the Republicans. The fact that Democrats control Congress and Joe Biden is in the White House will probably be enough to unify the GOP in opposition. 

Longer term, the situation is less clear. The numbers show that 34% of voters are largely committed to voting for any Republican candidate while 32% are just as ready to vote for any Democrat. The rest of the nation’s voters — a third of the electorate — are looking for a message and a team they can believe in.

Scott Rasmussen is an American political analyst and digital media entrepreneur. He is the author of “The Sun is Still Rising: Politics Has Failed But America Will Not.”