Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate featured the requisite dose of intra-party trash talking and Hillary Clinton bashing, with an added splash of some awkward high-fives. But with the 11 candidates squaring off at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the 40th president's name was invoked often on Wednesday, too. The Gipper maintains cult-like status in the GOP, and a Reagan name-drop almost guarantees applause.
Although a Reagan reference can score points in Republican circles, the policy positions of the current crop of contenders don't always align with the late president. Using data from On the Issues, InsideGov looked at how the current Republican candidates compare to Reagan on domestic, social, economic and defense issues.
The data suggests former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is the most similar to Reagan, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and businessman Donald Trump tied for second place.
Dr. Ben Carson and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are the least similar to Reagan.
The data takes into account a handful of factors to assess a politician's ideological score. Overall, Reagan scored a five on social issues, a seven on domestic issues, a two on economic issues and a six on defense issues - all tallies that designate him a conservative.
As the above graphic shows, Bush and Reagan's scores closely agree across the board, with the only difference related to defense and international policies. Within that issue area, Reagan and Bush are identical in regard to supporting military expansion and involvement abroad. They differ slightly when it comes to free trade - Bush is a moderate conservative, whereas Reagan was a staunch conservative - and the idea of American exceptionalism, or how unilateral the U.S. should behave in international relations. Bush supports building multi-country alliances, while Reagan was neutral on the topic.
When looking at overall tallies, Huckabee is only a point or two away from Reagan in every category. Huckabee is slightly more conservative when it comes to social and economic issues, but slightly less conservative on domestic and defense concerns.
The graphic also shows that Trump and Reagan agree on social issues, but Trump is slightly less conservative with domestic and defense policies. On average, Trump is more conservative on economic issues, but the breakdown reveals sharp differences. Trump and Reagan are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to higher taxes for wealthier Americans (Trump is for, Reagan was against) and a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants (Trump is against, Reagan was for).
As for the candidates who are the least aligned with Reagan?
The above graphic shows that Carson is within one point of Reagan in the realm of social issues, but the former neurosurgeon is more liberal when it comes to domestic issues and defense. Unlike Reagan, Carson does not believe that marijuana is a gateway drug and does not support stricter punishment as a means to reduce crime. The two differ on free trade (Reagan supported, Carson does not) and on American involvement abroad (Reagan supported involvement, Carson does not). With economic issues, Carson and Reagan are both against a stimulus package to boost economic recovery and higher taxes on wealthier Americans. But Carson is more conservative than Reagan when it comes to illegal immigration: Carson does not support a pathway to citizenship, whereas Reagan did.
Christie is much more liberal than Reagan on social, domestic and defense issues, but scores more conservative on economic issues. Whereas Reagan comes in as neutral on the issue of social security, Christie believes it should be privatized.
Reagan's popularity in the party certainly is tied to his policy positions, but it's his unmatched communication skills that have catapulted him into revered territory. His charisma, quick wit and ability to speak concisely about so-called kitchen table issues made him unparalleled on the campaign trail and during debates. In the 1984 presidential debate against Walter Mondale, for example, Reagan turned a question about whether or not he was too old to run for a second term into a quip about his younger challenger. The line got huge laughs and applause from the audience, and even left Mondale chuckling.
This type of campaign snapshot isn't quantifiable in a spreadsheet but can provide significant boosts in polls, fundraising and the all-important likeability factor that compels voters to cast their ballots for someone. Carly Fiorina recently had one such moment in her back-and-forth with Trump on his comments about her face, when she turned a dig at her appearance into a way to talk about her experience. Although InsideGov data indicates Fiorina is, overall, less conservative than Reagan, her reaction shows she has similar communication instincts - a hard-to-measure metric that is critically important.