WASHINGTON – Social conservatism is more important to the Republican base and holds a greater opportunity for expanding the Republican base than economic conservatism, a new study suggests.
Since the 2012 election, there has been a debate among Republicans over why they lost and the best path forward. Some argue the party needs to minimize the importance of social issues and focus on its economic agenda. Others, such as Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, have warned that ignoring social conservatives would greatly harm the party.
After the Republican National Committee released a report in April hinting that the party needs to de-emphasize its social conservative agenda, Perkins and 12 other social conservative leaders sent a letter to the RNC.
"The Republican Party makes a huge historical mistake if it intends to dismantle this coalition by marginalizing social conservatives and avoiding the issues which attract and energize them by the millions," the letter stated.
That question of whether social conservatism or economic conservatism is more important to the Republican Party seems to have been answered in a collaborative project, called the "2013 Economic Values Survey," by two left-of-center organizations – the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution.
At a Thursday Brookings Institution panel discussion introducing the findings, E. J. Dionne, a senior fellow at the Brookings and a Washington Post columnist, echoed the message of social conservatives.
"Among the various brands of conservatism, economic conservatism has the weakest hold in American public opinion," Dionne said.
Using composites of different questions from the poll, the study developed scales of theological orientation, social orientation and economic orientation. Comparing the conservatives in each of those three categories, economic conservatism is the least popular with the American public. Thirty-eight percent of Americans are theological conservatives, 29 percent are social conservatives, and only 25 percent are economic conservatives.
Additionally, among Democrats, about one-third, 31 percent, are theological conservatives and 19 percent are social conservatives, but only three percent of Democrats are economic conservatives. This suggests that Republicans have a better opportunity to attract Democratic defectors with a theologically conservative or a socially conservative message than an economically conservative message.
Similarly, Dionne pointed out, the data suggests an opportunity for the Democratic Party to attract Republican defectors. With Republicans' weaker commitment to economic conservatism, Democrats could attempt to attract some Republicans to its cause with a liberal economic message, a more moderate social conservative agenda and a friendlier tone on theological conservative sensitivities.
During the question and answer period, Dionne commented that he recognized his point was entering a debate among Republicans, but the data clearly indicate that the social conservatives are correct.
"If you look at these data, and you look at who conservatives are, it turns out that social conservatives loom larger as part of that constituency and more consistently than economic conservatives do," he added.
Both political parties must struggle with the oftentimes conflicting agendas of mobilizing their base and expanding their base. Dr. Laura Olson, professor of political science at Clemson University, was also on the panel and made this point.
"Conservatives can't win without social conservatives, but increasingly, at least at the national level, they cannot win with them," she continued.
Olson had two suggestions for the Republican Party if it wishes to expand its base: "be more inclusive in image and in outreach," and pass immigration reform.
"If Republicans are on the wrong side of history on immigration reform, it's going to be a big, big, big problem for them moving forward," Olson advised.
Robert P. Jones, CEO and founder of PRRI, looked at the issue by comparing social conservatives and Tea Party conservatives. If the question is whether the Republican Party should follow the social conservative agenda of the Christian Right, or the economic conservative agenda of the Tea Party, it is a "nonsensical question," Jones said, because social conservatives comprise the same portion of the Tea Party as the Republican Party. Social conservatives represent 48 percent of Republicans and 50 percent of the Tea Party.
The May 30 to June 16 survey of 2,002 American adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points for the full sample.
Audio of the event can be heard on the Brookings Institution website.