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There will be 15 Republicans answering questions and trading barbs at the second round of GOP presidential debates Wednesday night, but hanging over the event will be the ghost of one former White House resident, Ronald Reagan.
The debates are being held at the Reagan Library in California and it's likely the former president’s name will be invoked early and often by the participants.
But the Republican Party is in a different place than it was a quarter century ago. And when you compare self-identified Republicans today to those of 1990, you can only wonder how well Mr. Reagan would do in the 2016 race.
Those numbers above come from a July 1990 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll and the July 2015 NBC/WSJ poll and they indicate how much the party has moved in that time.
Most notably, the "conservative” part of the party has grown from less than half of all Republicans to more than 6 in 10. But the sharp drop in self-described “liberals” is significant as well. The party has clearly moved rightward using these measures.
(In the 1990 poll, 12% of self-described Republicans said they hadn’t “thought much about” where they resided on the ideological spectrum.)
Of course, we can’t say for certain the GOP is “13 points more conservative” than it was in 1990. It could be that the word “conservative” has become a more positive word for a lot of voters in since 1990 so more people choose it to define their views. But it’s hard to write off the changes above to just definitional fluctuations.
The point here is that the Republican revolution that Mr. Reagan spawned has its roots in a different-looking GOP that was more liberal than today’s party. And some of the former president’s positions, such as his more lenient views immigration and his evolution on abortion, might not be as welcomed with rank and file Republicans in the party’s current form.
The former president still has a hugely prominent place on the modern-day Republican Mount Rushmore. He brought the party to power in Washington and his ability to communicate conservative ideas is a lasting legacy.
But the GOP was a different party when he came to power and the changes he helped usher in pushed the party to evolve. It’s not clear how the Ronald Reagan of the 1980s would do in the 2016 primary race.