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If the GOP’s civil war keeps up, voters are likely to flee

But they’re more likely to shift toward the Democrats than to a third party

- May 16, 2021

A fierce civil war is roiling the Republican Party. Last week, the House Republican Conference ousted Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) from her position as conference chair, irritated by her continuing challenges to former president Donald Trump’s false claims about the 2020 presidential election. Meanwhile, reports suggest that more than 100 prominent Republicans are preparing to release a letter threatening to leave the GOP and form a third party unless the Republican Party makes certain changes that involve shaking off Trump’s grip.

The United States hasn’t seen such a level of conflict within a major party for decades. It’s especially startling given the intense polarization between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, with each party’s followers lined up in tense opposition to the other’s beliefs.

How will this civil war affect Republican voters?

In new research, I find that this internal battle may push away Republicans who aren’t particularly committed to their party — those who call themselves “not very strong Republicans” or who consider themselves political independents who lean toward the GOP.

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How I did my research

From March 14 to 25, I administered a survey experiment to a nationally representative sample of 1,876 Americans, using the Lucid platform. I randomly divided participants into three groups. Before answering questions, I had the first group read a news article excerpt that described prominent Republican and Democratic lawmakers clashing over whether Joe Biden legitimately won in the 2020 presidential election. The second group read about internal conflict among Republican lawmakers over the issue. The third group read no information at all, and simply took the survey.

All three groups then answered questions about their attitudes toward each party; whether they believed the opposing party posed a threat to democracy, and if so, how much; and whether they believed that the U.S. political system needs a major third party.

Does conflict within the party push Republicans away? It depends on their convictions.

When Democrats or strongly committed Republicans read about clashing GOP lawmakers, it had little or no effect on their attitudes. They were no more or less committed to the party, and they felt no more or less strongly about the opposing party’s threat to democracy, than those in a control group.

But Republicans with weaker commitments to the party did lose faith in the party after reading about GOP conflict. I used a measure of overall party opinion that takes into account favorable or unfavorable attitudes toward the party as well as trust in the party to handle U.S. problems. After reading about the GOP’s internal clashes, weak Republicans’ overall opinion of the party dropped by about six percentage points, compared with the control group or the group who read about clashes between the parties.

However, less committed Republicans did not become more interested in a potential third party. That’s bad news for any possible Republican Party offshoot, which probably wouldn’t gain traction among elected officials or voters.

Instead, weaker Republicans who read about GOP conflict over the election started thinking more highly of the Democratic Party, and became less likely to view it as a threat. Their opinion toward the Democratic Party grew six percentage points more favorable, and belief that the Democratic Party threatens democracy dropped by eight percentage points.

In other words, the Republican Party’s internal civil war could push some less committed Republican voters to the Democrats.

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Of course, there’s more to the story

This research does have limitations. First, the news article about GOP conflict didn’t use any names for the lawmakers who were arguing about the election’s legitimacy. In real life, what voters think about individual politicians would affect how they perceive the infighting; other news sources or commentaries could convince them that someone like Cheney is a so-called RINO (Republican in Name Only).

What’s more, debates about election legitimacy — both within the Republican Party and between Democrats and Republicans — have been raging since Biden won in November. Study participants might have already been oversaturated with information about both the conflict and the election. If so, that would limit the impact of the news excerpt they read in the experiment, particularly for strong partisans who pay close attention to politics. The most committed Republican voters’ attitudes, in other words, could have already been swayed by the actual news.

Conflict within Republicans, rather than between parties, looks worse for the GOP

By ousting Cheney from leadership, the GOP has signaled that it will not tolerate challenges to Donald Trump. Many Republican politicians and strategists view his support as necessary to win a House majority in the 2022 midterm election. But Republican leaders may wish to consider whether disagreements among themselves could cost the GOP the support of some of the swing voters who decide close elections.

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Katherine Clayton (@katie_clayton14) is a PhD student in political science at Stanford University.