Mapping the Republican Brain

The Republican Party is descending into unchartered realms of unpopularity with the country, even as its deepening divisions leave it immobilized in the face of doomsday budget deadlines.[1] If you want to know why Speaker Boehner has appealed to Democrats for help, you need go no further than the three ascendant blocs of Evangelicals, Tea Party supporters, and moderates that we described in our first Republican Party Project report last month.[2]

But you will understand the current war in the Republican Party better if you are able to see the the six underlying attitudinal dimensions that run through the consciousness of today’s Republican Party supporters. It is these dimensions that create the passionate factions at war against ‘Obamacare,” gay marriage, and immigration.     

We uncovered these underlying dimensions using a multivariate factor analysis that took the inter-correlation of each question with every other question to identify factors that organize Republican voter consciousness on a range of issues, from politics to values to emotions.[3]  We used big data analysis to identify six underlying dimensions that, in effect, map the Republican brain.      

These are the six dimensions running through the attitudes of Republican identifiers:  

1.      The Obama-Pelosi-Democratic Congress-government activism dimension (explains 23.5 percent of responses).  This is the predominant, and the most motivating dimension of Republican thinking, explaining almost a quarter of the variation in responses to the world. This dimension is animated in the first instance by deep hostility to President Barack Obama, and equally by views of Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Congress that held sway before the voter reaction in 2010.  These partisan responses are on the same dimension with a fierce hostility to federal government action, particularly with respect to climate change, though also health care reform.  While Republicans are desperate to stop health care reform, climate change has become as much a defining factor in Republican thinking.     

More than any other dimension, it gains its strength from deep hostility to the president and the Leader and health care reform.  Over 80 percent of Republicans offer cool reactions to them — and three-quarters give them the coldest reactions possible, with Pelosi more reviled than the Obama.  This is the emotional and combustible dimension in the Republican identity.

2.      The homosexuality-traditional values dimension (8.2 percent). There is a second, very strong dimension that centers on homosexuality and traditional values.  Gay marriage and homosexuality set off the responses that form this dimension.  Importantly for Republicans, homosexuality has become more important than abortion in motivating the focus on preserving traditional values.  Two-thirds respond coolly to gay marriage, but almost all of them, 60 percent, are intensely negative.  This dimension and the centrality of homosexuality mean that social and cultural issues will be key drivers among Republicans and in the country.

3.      The Republican Congress dimension (6.6 percent).  Excited Republican reaction to the new Republican Congress after the 2010 elections constitutes another organizing dimension in their identity.  Unlike the country, Republican voters feel very warm and embrace the Republican Congress and the Speaker, including warm feelings about the Tea Party and pro-life groups.  

4.      The traditional pro-business dimension (5.2 percent).  There is a pro-business dimension in Republican thinking — hostility to unions, pro-immigration and pro-free trade.  This was surely a more powerful factor in the past and it is barely more important than the anti-Wall Street dimension among Republicans.  This dimension gives energy to a traditional business agenda: marginalizing unions, facilitating labor market needs and promoting America’s global businesses.  That agenda would not have much of an impact among Republican primary voters.   

5.      The anti-Wall Street dimension (5.0 percent).  Equal in explanatory power is an anti-Wall Street dimension that includes the leader of the Republicans in the House who voted against the TARP bailout, we should recall.  It also encompasses positive views of government action on climate change, suggesting openness to a regulatory response when it comes to Wall Street. 

6.      The anti-foreign-anti-immigration dimension (4.6 percent). The last dimension is an anti-foreign and anti-immigrant dimension, led strongly by opposition to free trade abroad but also by doubts that immigrants make a good contribution to the country.  This is more nativist than economic, as it is strongly associated with rejecting “the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves.” This dimension reinforces a view that Americans ought to get on with the work of the country. 

[1] In the last month, the Republican Party has reached new levels of unpopularity, as reflected in the recent NBCWall Street Journal survey.  An amazing 44 percent of the country view Republicans negatively, up 3 points this past month when we might have expected gains because of Syria.  The Democrats have a brand advantage of 12 points (40 percent versus 28 percent on feeling positive).  (NBC News/Wall Street Journal Survey of 1000 adults nationwide, conducted Sept. 5-8, 2013 by Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies).

[2] The survey of 950 2012 voters (1500 unweighted) nationwide was conducted from July 10-15, 2013.  The survey included an oversample of an extra 350 Republicans to allow for more detailed subgroup analysis.

[3] Our findings stem from a principle-components factor analysis conducted using responses from 607 self-identified Republicans to batteries of 13 feeling thermometer questions and 14 agree/disagree questions measuring policy-related attitudes. Such an analysis is typically used to find distinct patterns across a series of survey questions that reflect common underlying traits or attitudes. These patterns identify dimensions of opinion which are distinct from one another, with each dimension providing a different angle from which to assess the differences in attitudes across the Republican Party. The six dimensions identified in this memo correspond to the six most prominent factors identified by the analysis, which combine to account for 53% of the total variance across all responses.  These analyses are the product of a collaboration between Democracy Corps, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, and Pivotal Targeting, LLC.

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