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Dr. David Hill: Avoiding the GOP’s outliers

As anyone paying attention knows, the Republican Party has gotten itself into a mess when it comes to its branding. 

A central controlling authority is not managing the brand image; rather, it’s a case of image building “by committee,” with GOP candidates each making their own contribution to what it means to be “Republican.” This is the end result of being in a party that worships freedom and individualism. Each candidate is welcome to dream his or her own dream of what the party should be. Unlike the collectivist Democrats who share a more homogeneous values system, Republicans run the gamut, from right of Attila the Hun to just left of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

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Democrats also benefit from the honor-shame culture that permeates their party. Candidates care about their standing among other Democrats and whether most will approve or disapprove of their actions. They also ponder and are chastened by the potential impact of their actions on their party as a whole. This creates a more compliant candidate who generally wouldn’t dare deviate from the norm. 

Republicans are different. Our individualistic culture expects every candidate to develop his or her own internal sense of right and wrong, a personal ideology. In practice, this individualism is accompanied by the development of a strong dichotomous sense of right and wrong. Interestingly, while Republican value systems are developed in an intensely personal manner, many candidates feel compelled thereafter to become social in judging the views of others.

From my perch as a pollster and statistician, I am not necessarily qualified to critique the two parties from a philosophical or cultural perspective. But I can say that Republican and Democratic cultures may have an impact on the electoral fortunes of the two parties. 

Because the “other-directed” Democrats inherently care about the approval of the collective, Democratic candidates tend to cluster around a statistical mean or norm. Granted, the Democratic mean is skewed left, but as long as the Democratic Party stays large enough — at least 35 to 40 percent of the total electorate —its own mean should not be terribly far from the mean of the whole, averaging in the sentiment of independents and Republicans. 

Alternatively, many — perhaps most — Republican candidates feel no need to acquiesce to any mean, even of other Republicans. Their eye is on ideology, right and wrong and self-determined vision. Statistically, Republicans plot as a cloud-like scattergram that has no central tendency. We have lots of what a statistician would refer to as “outliers” that defy any particular norm. 

Many Republicans, if presented with this insight, would not protest nor even be offended. They might delight in it, relishing their unabashed American individualism. But is it necessarily a winning formula, all this rugged outlying individuality? Does it help our party win elections? Probably not, except in a few states where there is little competition. Distinctiveness can rapidly evolve into an eccentricity that voters cannot support.

Fortunately, the political and cultural values of the electorate can be honestly determined through honest and thoughtful polling. I stress “honest” because some polls for Republicans are full of half-truths.

For example, I can easily find polls that say Americans agree with the proposition that “Government is too big and spends too much money.” Too many polls stop there and take this “finding” to authorize meat-ax policies. But if the same poll asked, “Should government reduce spending for the poor?” we would see some of the “too big” sentiment defer to the poor. Honest polling will pit these two competing sentiments, and other, similar contracting viewpoints, in head-to-head competition. Only then will we find winning formulas. 

Official party committee polling meant to identify viable candidates needs to follow this honest template, lest our party’s bounty be squandered on eccentric outliers that cannot win elections.

Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican campaigns and causes since 1984.