It has spread like wildfire among activist grassroots conservatives: Opposition to the Common Core State Standards Initiative has been all the rage for almost a year now.
The drumbeat has been so relentless that an observer might think Common Core was horribly unpopular, maybe even on a par with Obamacare.
Last month our firm did an extensive survey – commissioned by the Collaborative for Student Success, a pro-Common Core organization – to gauge voters’ attitudes on Common Core. We surveyed 1,000 voters at large, but then over-sampled an additional 500 likely conservative Republican primary voters, as well as 500 more “swing” voters who are undecided or lean in their choice of state legislators. From what we can tell, this is the largest public survey conducted about Common Core attitudes.
The first interesting point is that almost half of the swing voters we asked had never heard, read, or seen anything about Common Core. Nada. The same held true for one-third of Republican primary voters. They had never heard a peep.
Initially, the reaction to Common Core among Republicans was mixed – 33 percent support the standards, and only 41 percent oppose them. However, if you believe that Common Core will be a polarizing issue for Republican voters, you are wrong.
After we read a neutral description of what Common Core Standards are – "a set of standards in Math and English which state what a child should know in both subjects by the end of each grade of school they complete" – support among all voters soared to 64 percent versus only 29 percent who were opposed. Among conservative Republican primary voters the numbers were 59 percent in favor, 35 percent opposed – a very solid majority.
During the survey we tested competing descriptions of Common Core, the way two opposing candidates might describe them to gain an advantage with voters. Test your knowledge here: In a Republican primary, would you be more likely to vote for Candidate A or Candidate B based on their arguments?
• Candidate A, who says Common Core standards are supported by 75 percent of teachers and will help students learn more and be better prepared when they graduate high school.
• Candidate B, who says Common Core standards were developed in secret by the Obama administration and are being imposed on kids without input from parents and local school boards.
Surely Candidate B would be the winner, right? Conservatives can't stand President Obama, and are extremely distrustful of anything to do with the federal government. This is the language coming directly from some conservative groups.
Amazingly, Candidate A wins comfortably by a 48 percent to 36 percent margin.
Here are the takeaways from this survey that should interest conservatives the most:
First, the power of standards is very strong. Americans want their kids to be smart, and they’re not afraid of holding both teachers and students accountable for what is taught in the classroom.
Second, there is a huge gulf between what some conservative groups are saying and what regular GOP primary voters are thinking. The activists may be noisy, but the regular primary voters are far more numerous, much less hostile to Common Core and very supportive of state standards. You might not know it from the precinct committee meetings you're attending, but there's a lot more support for Common Core in a Republican primary than you might think. Obamacare may be toxic, but Common Core is not.
Third, if you’re running for office and you’re in a competitive general election, anti-Common Core rhetoric could become a real problem for you. Regular voters don’t buy into the anti-Common Core rhetoric, and you may be setting yourself up for trouble if you’re not careful. The swing voters who will decide the November election support state standards by a two-to-one margin.
As a service to conservatives, we’re making the memo summarizing our findings available to anyone. This issue is not nearly as clear-cut as some conservative activists think. We urge candidates and those involved in their campaigns to proceed with caution and ask their voters if they support their state setting standards for math and English.John McLaughlin is principal of McLaughlin & Associates, a Republican survey research firm whose past clients include the Heritage Foundation, Club for Growth and dozens of Republican candidates. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions for editorials, available at this link.