For over a year (indeed, for many years) we've heard how rank and file Republicans hate the nebulous "Republican establishment." I assume this means the party chairmen, congressional leadership, and mega donors, but it is hard to know who matches this definition, since just about every GOP candidate declares his "anti-establishment" credentials.
In any event, I was curious as to whether we could find any evidence for this. Unfortunately, I am not aware of any survey that actually uses the term Republican establishment -- not that such a survey would be particularly helpful, as that is obviously a loaded term.
We do, however, have feeling thermometer (FT) scores for each of the two major parties. FT scores are calculated by asking survey respondents the degree to which they feel warm or cold toward a figure, group, or institution. A score of 0 indicates that the respondent feels very cool toward the item, and a score of 100 indicates the respondent feels very warm. The American National Election Survey has included a large number of FT questions for decades, which can give us a sense of how these feelings change over time.
It turns out that Republicans, on average, do not have particularly fond feelings for their own party. In 2012, the mean FT score for the GOP among Republican respondents was a fairly cool 66. This actually the lowest score that Republicans have given their party in the period I examined. Democrats, on average, gave their party a warmer score: 71.
This is actually not new. Since at least the 1980s, Democrats have consistently given their party a warmer score than Republicans. Sometimes this enthusiasm gap is fairly small. But it reached a peak in 2008, when there was a gap of more than nine points between the two parties. The gap shrank a bit in 2012, but not because Republicans became more excited about their own party.
I was a bit surprised that gap favored the Democrats during the 1980s, as the Reagan years were supposedly the halcyon days of the conservative movement.
There was just one exception to this: 2004, where the two parties were about even. It is probably not coincidental that this was the last time since 1988 that a Republican won the popular vote in a presidential election, and the only year in this time period where a Republican won the popular vote for president and the GOP won majorities in the House and U.S. Senate.
I haven't seen FT party scores for 2016 yet, but I will be shocked if we see anything different -- though I will not confidently predict that we will see a gap like we saw in 2008, as the Democrats seem to have an enthusiasm problem of their own this year.
The main takeaway is that Republicans have long been somewhat ambivalent about their own party, which may help explain why an outsider candidate was able to have so much success running against his own party this year.
One caveat is in order. It is possible that there is a systematic difference between how warmly Republicans and Democrats rate all sorts of groups -- perhaps Republicans tend to give all kinds of groups very low scores compared to Democrats. There are ways to get around this, but I did not do so here. I doubt that such a correction would have made a significant difference.