What most interested Nixon strategists, who were looking for ways to win by recovering the American center, was the idea that the electorate could be viewed along what Free and Cantril labelled the “ideological spectrum” and the “operational spectrum.” The voices of strongly ideological conservatives had been heard for decades, expressing antipathy toward modern times in general and to what were seen as the “encroachments” of the welfare state. At the same time, they wanted to keep in place encroachments like Social Security and Medicare. Operational conservatives, though, had moved from simple hostility and suspicion to a wish to abolish such popular programs. Yet a “startling fact” emerged: four of ten of those who qualified as conservatives on the ideological spectrum counted as liberal on the operational spectrum. That pointed to a big problem with the Goldwater campaign, where the operational conservatives were in charge.
Today’s version of operational conservatives—people like Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who have both dropped out of the Presidential race—have tried to set and maintain a Republican agenda that includes inflexibility on abortion rights, a refusal to concede a human connection to climate change, and, most insistently, getting rid of the Affordable Care Act. The loudest voice in this cohort belongs to Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who has said, repeatedly, “If I’m elected President, we will repeal every word of Obamacare,” a jarring sentence (how does one repeal a word?) that makes his vow sound less like a campaign pledge and more like a menacing threat to anyone who has been helped by the new law. The great joke of the Republican contest, though, is that all of these conservatives have been challenged, and soundly beaten (though Cruz is still in the race), by Donald J. Trump, the real-estate developer and reality-show host, whose opinions seem to meander across several spectra, and whose party loyalty is suspect.
The Ideological-Operational Divide in the G.O.P.