The GOP has grappled for months with a self-acknowledged brand problem, and the consequences just became all the more painfully clear: The number of Americans shedding the Republican label to become independents is exploding. The solution, political strategists suggest, may lie in party leaders' ability to return to core values that distinguish Republicans from Democrats on everything from spending to personal freedom.
The latest evidence of the GOP's woes — and opportunities — surfaced Wednesday with a Gallup poll that showed the number of Americans self-identifying as independents soared to a record 42 percent while the share of Republicans plunged to an all-time low of 25 percent.
The silver lining for Republicans, however, is that Democrats failed to make any gains during the GOP free fall, with their number stuck at 31 percent of the 18,000 adults Gallup surveyed.
The polling data added to the self-imposed soul-searching that many Republicans have embarked upon since the 2012 election losses.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma, a rising star among conservatives, lays the blame on "Republicans continuing to join Democrats in their support for more taxes, more spending and more debt."
Mr. Bridenstine specifically criticized the spending and tax deal his party's 2012 vice presidential nominee, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, cut recently with his Senate Democratic counterpart, Patty Murray of Washington.
"A perfect example is the Paul Ryan-Patty Murray budget 'deal.' Lobbyists and special interests continue to win, the American people continue to suffer, and neither party benefits," Mr. Bridenstine said in enumerating what he saw as a missed Republican opportunity to demand deeper spending and deficit cuts.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a potential Republican presidential candidate, agrees. The poll "reflects the problem that neither party has done enough to balance the budget, reduce the size of government and protect the liberty of Americans," Mr. Paul said.
Some conservatives, ironically, believe Democrats deserve much of the credit for keeping the GOP alive with their blunders on the Obamacare rollout.
"If it weren't for the Democratic Party, the Republican Party would have disappeared long ago," said California conservative GOP leader Larry Eastland. "The only life seen in the Republican Party with which the public has rallied in the last five years was Sen. Rand Paul's filibuster."
Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway sees a kind of poetic justice in the voters' apparent declaration of independence and disgust with the way the parties conduct politics.
"For years, people called themselves 'independents' because they were not paying attention to politics. Now they call themselves 'independents' precisely because they ARE paying attention to politics," she said.
Some on the right believe that the only way the GOP will avoid going the down the path of the defunct Whig Party is to return to the party's core values and stop breaking promises to keep taxes, spending and regulatory burdens low. On those issues, they see Democratic weaknesses that can be exploited.
"The United States has spent 100 years fighting and defeating centralized governments that control human behavior and limit freedom, so it is not surprising that Americans won't identify with a Democratic Party that adheres to the same principles that have wrecked nations across the world and throughout history," said Mr. Bridenstine, a Navy fighter pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan before he joined politics. "The surprise is that Republicans have not benefited."
The shift away from the GOP to independent also reflects a fervor among conservatives to put ideology and beliefs ahead of party loyalty.
"A growing number of conservatives, and especially tea partyers and libertarian-leaning Americans, have decided that their commitment is more to ideology than political party," said Merrill Matthews, a resident scholar at the Institute for Policy Innovation. "And while they will likely vote Republican in most elections, they have become dissatisfied with the Republican label because they don't think it stands for — or too often strays from — principled conservatism."
Republicans also have suffered from foibles that have handed the opposition easy prey in the political blame game.
For instance, the Democratic National Committee is making hay this week with videos castigating New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, now considered a leading Republican presidential contender for 2016.
Democrats are accusing Mr. Christie's administration of needlessly shutting lanes to a bridge in the state and caused huge traffic snarls because he wanted to punish a New Jersey mayor for not joining other Democrats in endorsing the governor for re-election last year. Mr. Christie buried his Democratic challenger in a landslide anyway.
Such apparent petty political vindictiveness is hard on the image of a party that claims a commitment to ethics and principles, and Mr. Christie late Wednesday suggested he had been misled on the decision by his staff.
"What Gov. Christie has done is reinforce every stereotype the American public has of this generation of Republican leaders," said Mr. Eastland, a California businessman and American Conservative Union board member. "Politics — pure and simple politics at its worst. I have always used the analogy of 'How will it play to the boys in Bayonne [New Jersey] at the bar having a beer?' I think they'd say, 'Don't tread on me,' which is just as viable in the American lexicon today as it was when it was first used by the Continental Marines in 1775."
Gallup's analysis attributes the "rise in political independence to "Americans' record or near-record negative views of the two major U.S. parties" and Congress.
Gallup says that makes it harder to predict the outcomes of this year's congressional midterm elections.
"Because U.S. voters are less anchored to the parties than ever before, it's not clear what kind of appeals may be most effective to winning votes. But with Americans increasingly eschewing party labels for themselves, candidates who are less closely aligned to their party or its prevailing doctrine may benefit," the polling agency said.
That may be true so long as "less closely aligned to their party's prevailing doctrine" means that Republican candidates can convince voters they are shedding the party's recent monikers, practices and promises and re-embracing the GOP's historical commitment to personal liberty and limited government.
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