The Ripon Forum

Volume 43, No. 4

Fall 2009 Issue

The Rise of Value Voters

By on October 23, 2014

This past September, the Family Research Council held a “Values Voters Summit” for conservatives in Washington, DC.

It was the fourth year the group had held such an event. As in years past, a host of Republican leaders appeared. Also as in years past, some of the media’s coverage of the event was negative.

Even before the event started, for example, some commentators were gleefully pointing out that South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford had, for obvious reasons, been disinvited from the event. Additional biting commentary was also heard from others on the far left edge of the political blogosphere.

While this was to be expected, it was also a shame. The vast majority of those who attended the Values Voters Summit were not the mean spirited caricatures some portrayed them to be. They were honorable individuals whose interest in the future of America was – and is – driven less by their political ideology than their personal beliefs. For the media to cover them with scorn was unfair.

Yet they were not the only ones wronged that weekend. Republicans were also done a disservice as a result of the summit, because one of the storylines that emerged was that the GOP needs to run to the political right in order to return to political power. Clearly, the appearance of so many party leaders made this story an easy one to tell. But that didn’t make it one that was in the best interests of the party as it heads into the mid-term elections next year.

To reach independents, Republicans not only need to tap into the frustration they have over the growth of government, but tap into their desire to make government work.

Make no mistake – the conservatives who attended the Values Voters Summit are the foundation of the modern Republican Party. They are the ones who stuff the envelopes, staff the phone banks and show up for rallies when everyone else is sitting on their hands. It was not only politically smart that party leaders showed up to thank them for their loyalty and hard work. It was the right thing to do. But it is also important to remember that while a political party is built with its base, general elections are won in the middle.

And if recent polls are to be believed, that part of the electorate is growing.

Just last month, ABC News reported that 43 percent of the American people consider themselves to be independents — the highest number ever. Unfortunately, as the political center has expanded, Republican support among this key voting bloc has shrunk. Independents have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in Congress the past two elections. They were also a crucial part of the coalition that elected Barack Obama last year. Over the past several weeks, though, amidst rising concerns about the growth of government and the amount of new spending that has been proposed, support for the President’s policies among independents has appeared to slip. If this erosion continues, Republicans have to be ready to win their support.

A roadmap to accomplish this goal might be found in a series of focus groups held at the end of August with independent voters. Sponsored by the GOP advocacy group Resurgent Republic, the focus groups revealed two important things about independents. First, while they share with Republicans a basic mistrust of big government, they also believe that limited government does have a role to play, particularly in situations where individuals are up against forces beyond their control (such as hurricanes, terrorist threats, and financial meltdowns). Beyond this, the other thing the focus groups revealed is that independents are growing frustrated. They feel they went to the polls and voted for better government last November, but have gotten only bigger government instead. In short, they are beginning to wonder whether they were sold a false bill of goods.

To reach independents, Republicans not only need to tap into the frustration they have over the growth of government, but tap into their desire to make government work. To be sure, the GOP’s reputation in this regard has suffered in recent years. From the chaos after Katrina to the mismanagement of Iraq to the failure to regulate speculators who peddled bad mortgages and gambled with IRAs, Republicans have not exactly proven themselves to be competent managers of the bureaucracy. (Of course, neither have the Democrats.) But times change, and the party is under new leadership. George Bush is clearing brush in Texas, while Tom Delay is dancing with the stars. It is critical that Republicans develop a message for independents that shows they have turned the page, as well.

For this reason, in addition to talking about values like they did at the September summit, the GOP would also be well-served to begin talking about value. More specifically, they should begin talking about the fact that when people send their money off to Washington, they want to know they are getting something of value back in return. This is especially true during tough economic times when household budgets are tight. Whether it is the incomes taxes coming out of their paychecks or the 18.4 cents per gallon in federal gas taxes they are paying at the pump, Americans want to know that the dollars they earn and then turn over to the government are being wisely spent.

…in addition to talking about values like they did at the September [Values Voters] summit, the GOP would also be well-served to begin talking about value.

As the recent focus groups made clear, independent voters have real concerns as to whether that is actually the case. In the words of a woman who participated in one of the groups, “We don’t know where the money is going and where it is coming from.” If the Republicans want to compete in the middle, they must be able to respond to these kinds of concerns.

Not with partisan outrage that paints all government spending with the broad brush of socialism. But with substantive solutions that explain to independent voters how their tax dollars could be put to best use.

Doing so will put the party in a better position to win not only the support of independents, but next year’s elections, too.

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Lou Zickar is the editor of The Ripon Forum.

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