But the biggest reason why the GOP may not be pushing more popular policies is that recent history suggests it’s unnecessary. Former President Trump’s startling 2016 election victory showed that an unpopular candidate with little interest in public policy can still win. For conservative activists disappointed in the outcomes of Romney’s and the late Sen. John McCain’s campaigns, the lesson of 2016 was that political candidates with personal baggage or extreme political views are no longer a liability.
The current structure of the Electoral College and the U.S. Senate also allows Republican candidates wider discretion in eschewing popular legislation. For instance, former FiveThirtyEight reporter Perry Bacon Jr. argued last March that the GOP’s structural advantages over the Democratic Party has allowed legislators to pursue more conservative policies than the average voter prefers. And as Laura Bronner and Nathaniel Rakich also wrote at FiveThirtyEight, Republicans have done this while often being in the minority: “Republican senators have not represented a majority of the population since 1999 — yet, from 2003 to 2007 and again from 2015 to 2021,Republicans had a majority of members of the Senate itself. That means that, for 10 years, Republican senators were passing bills — and not passing others — on behalf of a minority of Americans.” Furthermore, gerrymandering, particularly in state-legislative races, insulates Republican members from popular sentiment.
Recent work in political science offers another plausible explanation. In an increasingly polarized political system, individual issues may matter less than partisan identity.