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Can Republicans Tackle Inequality?

The ramp-up to 2016 has started with a succession of Republicans zeroing in on inequality and a shrinking middle class. Mitt Romney weighed in Wednesday night. Speaker John Boehner told CBS Evening News Anchor Scott Pelley that inequality was a problem. And last weekend's gathering of prospective presidential candidates was filled with mentions. This is no coincidence. They're concerned because their voters are. And it could foreshadow an important split in the upcoming primaries.

One big sign came in November: even as they swept Republicans into power, a sizeable 42 percent of Republican voters said the U.S. economy "favored the wealthy," which was up from 33 percent in 2012. (Democrats, for their part, overwhelmingly believe this, and their numbers also increased.) This doesn't mean Republican voters think the solution to comes exclusively from government -- polls show they don't, of course -- but it does mean that prospective leaders feel they have to address the issue if they're going to connect.

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Their constituents' concerns are personal. In those same midterms, Republican voters were much more likely to say their own family's financial situation had gotten worse, rather than better over recent years. This was a view held both by those at the top of the income ladder, as well as those lower down, and this could be an important factor.

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First, consider the range of Republican voters. While Americans of middle- and lower- incomes have been especially hard hit in the recession, Republicans routinely draw votes from across the economic spectrum, with a fairly even split of people earning under $50,000 per year, 50 to 99,000, and those earning over $100,000.

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The GOP has also done well - especially in the last midterm - among non-college educated voters, which is a group hasn't done well in this downturn. Jobs and wages in this category have been slow to recover, if at all. The Republicans clearly see an opportunity here to cement gains with these voters: the Democrats' woes with the working class - in particular white working class voters - were pronounced in 2014 and could start to offset some of the Democrats' demographic advantages they've had in Presidential years if it continues.

But it could have even more immediate impact in the 2016 primaries if candidate preferences split along income lines. Recall that we did see income differences in 2012's nomination race, particularly once the contest had narrowed down essentially to Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. Santorum did relatively better among the lower-income primary voters. (The past doesn't foretell the prospects for any specific candidate this year. It simply illustrates how economic divisions can exist within the Republican primary electorate.)

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Based on financial data, the middle class is changing in size, but in voting, there is another factor to take into account: how voters feel about themselves and their economic prospects, and not just how we classify them by empirical measures. Both parties routinely talk about "the middle class," simply because that's how nine in 10 Americans see themselves. But the definition of "middle-class" is difficult to pin down. It's a designation that doesn't just reflect standing on the income scale. The label can be as much about whether people feel that they can pay their bills and have enough left over to buy other things, whether they believe they can advance in their jobs, whether they have at least day-to-day security, if not outright affluence.

How Republican candidates navigate all this - and it clearly seems they're trying - might become a key part of 2016. They need to connect with voters - including, their own - and give voice to the concerns of those still uncertain about the economy and their prospects. But they'll need to balance this with the sense that many of those same voters won't want government involvement, however it's defined. In the larger picture, it is another reminder that the recession may be ending, but not for everyone. And the anger over the financial crisis that spurred it has left a wider and perhaps lasting impression on Americans' views of their economic system and -- correctly or not -- how it works, or for whom it works. And those views aren't necessarily relegated to either party.

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    Anthony Salvanto, Ph.D is CBS News Director of Elections and Surveys. He oversees all polling across the nation, states and congressional races, and heads the CBS News Decision Desk that estimates outcomes on Election Nights. He is the author of "Where Did You Get This Number: A Pollster's Guide to Making Sense of the World," from Simon & Schuster, and appears regularly across all CBS News platforms. His scholarly research and writings cover topics on polling methodology, voting behavior, and sampling techniques.