WASHINGTON – We may be six months away from Election Day, but I’ve already racked up nearly 160,000 km this year crisscrossing the country and listening to voters in more than 20 states. Both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are in full campaign mode, and opinions and analysis of their chances to win are flowing fast and thick. I study what Americans think and how they communicate. And I can tell you firsthand that there are widespread misconceptions about conservative voters — what they believe in and what they are looking for from their leaders. Let’s look closer at this key demographic and debunk some of the biggest whoppers.
1. Conservatives care most about the size of government.
They may have rallied around President Ronald Reagan’s call for smaller government three decades ago — but it’s not the 1980s anymore. Today, conservatives don’t want a reduced government so much as one that works better and wastes less.
It used to be that conservatives supported smaller government on theoretical grounds: The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen; government should only do for people what they truly cannot do for themselves; government isn’t the solution, it is the problem. You’ve heard such comments from conservatives, and they’re the mantra of the tea party movement. They’re still part of conservative orthodoxy — which is why Republican candidates invoke them — but the underlying conservative belief system is shifting.
2. Conservatives want to deport all illegal immigrants.
Conservatives don’t want to round up all the illegal immigrants and deport them. They believe in the American dream and understand that immigrants built our country. That’s why conservatives embrace legal immigration. A solid majority believe that there should be an eventual path to earned legal status.
According to our polling in November, seven in 10 conservatives agree with the following statement: “America’s immigration policy should consist of tall fences and wide gates. We need to aggressively prevent illegal immigration, but let those stay that have worked hard and demonstrated a real, measurable commitment to this country through military or public service.”
Yes, conservatives want effective border control right away. And more than 80 percent are dissatisfied with America’s immigration system. But only a tiny fraction would support a shortsighted (and fiscally unfeasible) blanket policy of deporting the illegal immigrants already here.
3. They worship Wall Street.
While the left may perceive and portray the right as a bunch of greedy Gordon Gekkos, the truth is that conservatives are highly critical of Wall Street and wholeheartedly celebrate Main Street. The business leaders that conservatives respect most are entrepreneurs, not chief executives; conservatives value small-business owners above big bankers.
In a poll I conducted early this year, I asked conservatives whom they most trusted to get our country on the right economic track. By nearly two to one, they chose small-business owners over corporate America (only “political leaders” did worse). They believe that our economy will be rebuilt by hard work on Main Street, not by book-cooking on Wall Street.
Conservatives respect the role that businesses large and small have played in spurring America’s long-term economic success. But most agree with moderates and liberals that things on Wall Street have gotten out of hand. They believe that those who abuse the system should be held accountable and that those who work hard and play by the rules should be free to advance.
And while big names such as Rush Limbaugh and Larry Kudlow may defend “capitalism,” my polling indicates that conservatives would rather embrace “economic freedom.” The former represents big business and Wall Street; the latter evokes small business and Main Street.
4. Conservatives want to slash Social Security and Medicare.
This charge is at the heart of the Democrats’ campaign against the GOP. Take Florida, a key swing state full of conservative seniors. According to an AARP poll there last year, 70 percent of them oppose cuts to Medicare. They want the program strengthened, not dismantled. They know Medicare needs reform, but they want changes to be effective and reasonable.
Conservatives believe in such simple principles as personal choice and greater competition, and they are more confident than liberals in people’s ability to make the right decisions. For example, 78 percent agree with the statement: “Increasing patient choice in Medicare will help save Medicare from bankruptcy. When patients can shop for better care … it will force insurance companies to compete against each other, which lowers costs and increases care.”
When it comes to government retirement programs, conservatives are pragmatic, not ideological. More than anything, they want programs such as Medicare and Social Security to work. Plain and simple.
5. Conservatives don’t care about inequality.
Fully 66 percent of conservatives consider the growing gap between the rich and the poor a “problem,” according to a poll I conducted in January, while 21 percent call it a “crisis.”
So, if everyone is concerned about the income gap, what’s the big difference between left and right? It’s the difference between opportunity and outcome. Conservatives want to increase opportunity, giving everyone the freedom and tools to prosper, so that the poor may someday become rich. Liberals want to redistribute income, making the rich — quite simply — less rich.
Conservatives also believe that we need better enforcement of the regulations we already have, not more rules. Like all Americans, they are outraged that there hasn’t been a single prosecution by the Obama administration for the corporate abuses that led to the economic meltdown. As a focus group participant once asked: “If Martha Stewart was convicted, why no one from Goldman Sachs?” Or, as I’d put it, “Why are they working in the White House, not doing time in the big house?”
Frank I. Luntz is a pollster and communications specialist