Republican Politicians Who Want to Focus on Poverty Have a Big Problem: Republican Voters Don't Care

Some conservative leaders and Republican politicians want the GOP to focus on an anti-poverty agenda. Republican voters, though, have shown little interest in the topic. One of their biggest challenges, therefore, will be to convince Republican voters that tackling poverty should be at the top of their political agenda.

A group of conservative thinkers have been urging Republican politicians to take the lead on fighting poverty. These thinkers, dubbed "new populists" by The Christian Post last summer (see The New Populists part 1 here, and The New Populists part 2 here) include Tim Carney, a Washington Examiner columnist and American Enterprise Institute fellow, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, conservative writer Ben Domenech, and AEI President Arthur Brooks.

Brooks, for instance, has argued that Republicans need to place the poverty issue out front. Rather than discuss how certain conservative policies or principles can help the poor as an addendum or side benefit, Republicans need to lead with the poverty issue by pointing out how the poor are harmed by certain government policies and how their reform proposals can help.

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A few Republican politicians appear to have been listening. At a November "Antipoverty Forum" hosted by The Heritage Foundation, for instance, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) argued that President Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty" was a failure and a renewed conservative movement needs to take the lead in fighting poverty.

More recently, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) marked last week's 50th anniversary of the "War on Poverty" with a speech announcing his anti-poverty reform proposals. Rubio, the son of poor immigrants, has long made poverty a central issue in his election campaigns. He is now finding more allies with his message. Brooks introduced him at the event.

These conservatives will face many challenges in convincing Republicans to make poverty a central issue. Among them will be convincing Republican voters that poverty is an important issue, Patrick Egan, a New York University political scientist, points out for The Monkey Cage, a political science blog hosted by The Washington Post.

Egan points to 2013 Pew Research Center data showing what Republicans, Democrats and independents say are their political priorities. For a range of issues, respondents were asked if the issue should be a "top priority" for the president and Congress.

Republicans' highest ranked issues were strengthening the nation's economy (89 percent), reducing the budget deficit (84 percent), defending against terrorism (80 percent), improving the job situation (77 percent), and securing Social Security (74 percent).

For Democrats, the top five issues were strengthening the nation's economy (89 percent), improving the job situation (84 percent), improving education (80 percent), reducing health care costs (79 percent), and securing Medicare (73 percent).

"Helping the poor and needy" was also near the top (eighth highest) for Democrats at 71 percent. Among Republicans, though, only 46 percent said "helping the poor and needy" should be a top priority, a 25 percentage point difference. (Fifty-three percent of independents said helping the poor and needy should be a top priority.)

Poverty is one of the issues "owned" by the Democrats, explains Egan, who recently wrote a book about issue ownership, Partisan Politics: How Issue Ownership Drives and Distorts American Politics. By somewhere around 30 to 50 percentage points, he notes, the public trusts Democrats more than Republicans on the poverty issue. (The only exception is when the polling question mentions the word "welfare." Republicans then have a slight advantage.)

Not only are rank-and-file Democrats more likely to prioritize poverty, Egan adds, they will be more enthusiastic about addressing the issue than Republicans: "Year in and year out, Democratic voters don't just prioritize fighting poverty more than Republicans; it's generally the issue on which Democratic enthusiasm is most likely to be higher – by 20 to 30 percentage points – than Republican enthusiasm."

The toughest audience, therefore, for a new Republican anti-poverty message, Egan concludes, will be Republican voters.

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