Larison notes a disconnect:
Ironically, the political center of the GOP is significantly farther to the left today than it was thirty years ago, in keeping with general shifts in popular opinion and cultural changes, but there are far more people inside the party who claim to be conservatives than was the case just 12 years ago. This has created the bizarre disconnect between those inside and those outside the party, as those inside see accurately that there has been no “move to the right” by the GOP in the last decade (on the contrary, there has been a move in the opposite direction), but those outside see for the most part the strong identification between Republicans and conservatives, and the largely unflinching support the latter give to the party in good times and bad, and they conclude that the GOP is conservative and becoming more so all the time.
This perception will tend to be strongest among the least informed and therefore least ideological voters, and it will not matter that this perception is based in a manipulative electoral strategy that has little policy substance behind it (see Palin, Sarah). They then look at the outcomes of Republican governance, which marginal critics have been correctly lambasting for years or decades as un-conservative or even anti-conservative by more traditional definitions, and conclude that all these people running around calling themselves conservatives should not be trusted with power.