Yet buried inside Bush’s poll numbers is a striking finding: He fares well among the demographic groups that have favored Republicans, including defeated 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and he performs poorly among the demographic groups with whom Republicans have struggled.
I’m not sure this is all that striking. It sounds like what one would expect from strong partisan and ideological voters. If you voted Republican for president in 2012 or 2008, the odds are good that you belong to the hard core of the Republican coalition. This is something that not even the disasters of the Bush era could weaken, which is how the extremely poor McCain/Palin ticket still managed to get almost 46% of the vote during a recession and a financial crisis.
Bush’s continued popularity on the right is relevant to the debate over what Republicans have to do to get out from under the shadow of the Bush administration. Unfortunately for the GOP, the party is in something of a bind. Most Americans outside the party view Bush unfavorably because they regard him (correctly) as a failed president whose policies inflicted serious damage on the country. Most people inside the party see him in an entirely different light. If 65% of Republicans and 60% of self-identified conservatives view Bush favorably, it’s not surprising that there is so much resistance on the right to acknowledging Bush’s errors and learning from them. It’s also possible Bush’s overall unpopularity may be contributing to his popularity inside the Republican tent out of some sort of perverse need to defy the prevailing view that Bush’s presidency was a disaster. There is a strange rally effect in partisan politics that can cause people to remain loyal to their worst leaders simply for the sake of opposing critics from the other “side.” Even worse than this are the loyalists that genuinely can’t see failure for what it is.
Governor Romney, I am an undecided voter, because I’m disappointed with the lack of progress I’ve seen in the last four years. However, I do attribute much of America’s economic and international problems to the failings and missteps of the Bush administration [sic]. Since both you and President Bush are Republicans, I fear a return to the policies of those years should you win this election. What is the biggest difference between you and George W. Bush, and how do you differentiate yourself from George W. Bush?
Romney’s answer wasn’t very good, since his attempt to differentiate himself from Bush just confirmed that he didn’t disagree with Bush on anything important. Like many other Republicans over the last four years, Romney couldn’t identify many big differences with Bush because they didn’t exist. More important, he didn’t really understand why he needed to do this. He didn’t understand why because he didn’t accept the premise that “the failings and missteps of the Bush administration” were responsible for America’s “economic and international problems.” Instead, Romney spent most of the campaign pretending that Bush didn’t exist and that the Bush years never happened while proposing to do almost all of the same things that Bush had done. Bush loyalists also don’t know how to answer the question Romney was asked, and it is even more difficult for them because they are so busy being offended that someone has the temerity to hold Bush responsible for his failures.