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Monday, December 5, 2016

WASHINGTON — If Republicans are baffled by Hillary Clinton’s persistent lead in the polls despite months of bad publicity, they need only examine the tensions on display in their party over the last few days.

It would be hard to conceive of a worse stretch for Clinton than a period that began with scrutiny of her use of a private email server while she was Secretary of State and moved to saturation coverage of the Clinton Foundation’s fundraising. Let’s stipulate first that her trustworthiness has taken a hit. In addition, it should always be said that polls this early are not predictive of next year’s election, and that Clinton’s nearly universal name recognition helps her numbers.

Nonetheless, there was the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Monday showing Clinton ahead of both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio by 6 points, Scott Walker by 10, and Rand Paul by 3.

The New York Times/CBS poll released a day later showed what the GOP is up against: Only 29 percent of Americans had a favorable view of the Republican Party, while 43 percent had a positive view of the Democrats.

The survey also documented a steady but little-noticed trend: Americans, by their own self-description, are becoming less conservative. In the fall of 2010, the Times/CBS poll found, there were twice as many self-described conservatives as liberals: 19 percent of Americans called themselves liberal, 38 percent called themselves conservative. In the latest poll, liberals stood at 25 percent, conservatives at 33 percent. In less than five years, a 19-point margin has shrunk to 8.

Republicans and conservatives have a brand problem. Their presidential campaign will only aggravate it as candidates are forced to double down on an ideology that is in danger of decline. Moreover, the next year is likely to intensify deep stresses inside their coalition. Mike Huckabee gleefully highlighted these frictions when he announced his presidential candidacy, and Clinton moved quickly to exploit them.

If Democrats have a problem with white working-class voters, Huckabee brought home how Republicans have challenges of their own. While the GOP’s candidates fall all over themselves to cater to ultra-rich donors whose taxes the Republican hopefuls promise to cut, the party’s rank-and-file have reason to wonder what’s in all this for them.

This is a real predicament for a party whose money base is privileged but whose loyalists are not. In a Washington Post/ABC News survey in late March, 37 percent of registered voters who identified themselves as Republican earned less than $50,000 a year. Another 34 percent earned between $50,000 and $100,000 a year.

Huckabee spoke directly to these voters on Tuesday. “I grew up blue-collar, not blue-blood,” he declared. “I never have been and won’t be the favorite candidate of those in the Washington-to-Wall Street corridor of power.” His campaign, he added, “will be funded and fueled not by billionaires but by working people across America.”

It made you wonder: Is there an Elizabeth Warren wing of the Republican Party?

The big-money groups, starting with Club for Growth Action, went to work immediately to knock Huckabee aside. Raising the class contradictions inside the GOP coalition — as both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich did with Mitt Romney — is the last thing the party’s billionaire caucus wants.

Republicans typically try to keep their working-class voters onside by appealing to them on social issues and immigration. That’s why Clinton’s sideswipe at the Republican field on the immigration issue was a sophisticated form of wedge politics. “Not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants, she said Tuesday in a speech in Las Vegas. “Not one.”

Her goal was to put pressure especially on Rubio and Bush. They hope to shore up the GOP share among Latino voters, who went 71 percent for President Obama in 2012. But both are in a box because while 57 percent of all Americans favored a path to citizenship in the latest Times/CBS poll, only 38 percent of Republicans did. It’s no wonder that their respective trumpets on the immigration question have given a decidedly uncertain sound.

Republicans hope that if they can just stir up enough doubts about Clinton, one of their candidates will make it through in 2016. Perhaps this can work. But their anti-Clinton focus will do little to resolve the underlying weaknesses of an ideology and a party that, even against a 67-year-old Democrat, do not look like the wave of the future.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne. 

Former governor Jeb Bush speaks at the 42nd annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Feb. 27, 2015 in National Harbor, Maryland. Conservative activists attended the annual political conference to discuss their agenda. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)