October 5th 2009

Shifting Party Trends?

As we enter the last turn before Election Day 2009, with important elections in New Jersey and Virginia, I thought it would be interesting to look at party identification trends.  Gallup provides a good resource for studying this; while some criticize Gallup for not weighing for party identification in their polls, and frequently showing large fluctuation in party identification from one poll to the next, the unweighted data they collect provides an excellent resource for measuring trends over a longer period.

Before we go too much further, let me define some of my terminology.  Hard identification (hard ID) means expressing a partisan identification when asked “In politics, as of today, do you consider yourself a Republican, a Democrat, or an independent?”  Lean and leaners are self-described independents who express a partisan preference when they are asked “As of today, do you lean more to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party?”

Getting to the point, Republican self-identification including leaners now averages about 43%, while Democratic self-identification including leaners is once again consistently under 50% (about 48%).  This leaves the Democratic advantage less than 5-points, a gap as close as or closer than any point since mid 2005 (including the partisan repolarization around the 2008 Presidential Election).

One might wonder how a 5-point deficit in party identification is good news for the Republican Party, but since the fall of 2006, Republicans were regularly at as much as a 15-point disadvantage.

The underlying structure of this shift is not very solid yet.  Republicans have done little or nothing to improve identification without leaners (hard ID).  From 2004 thru late summer 2006, more than 30% of Americans identified themselves as Republicans, and after a brutal 2006 election season, self-identification as a Republican dropped under 30%, only occasionally getting to 30, but never over.  Identification as a Democrat (hard ID) has generally been more stable, averaging about 35% of Americans – with a little dip in the 2007 “post partisan” period and a bit of a rise during the Democratic primary and Obama honeymoon.  The current averages are about 27% Republican, 35% Democrat, and 37% independent - giving Republicans a seven or 8-point disadvantage in hard ID.

Maybe the real story is that America is once again experiencing a shift of voters who don’t strongly identify with a political party.  Americans expressing no strong partisan affiliation now constitute about 37% of the population – on par with 2006, but short of the 2007 “post-partisan” period.  While these people don’t express a strong party identification, when pushed, many lean toward one party or another.  For the first time since 2003 (when Gallup has data available), these independents lean more Republican than Democratic, in fact about 43% of independents lean Republican, while about 35% of independents lean Democratic – that means that about 16% of Americans identify themselves as independent but lean Republican while 13% identify themselves as independent but lean Democratic.  [Chris Cillizza has a makes similar note in the Fix 10/1/09]

So while Republicans seem to have narrowed the gap with Democrats on party identification the underlying numbers remain soft and Republicans still suffer from a diminished base of supporters identifying themselves as Republicans.  However, this is the best trend Republicans have seen in years.  If the party can convert some of these leaners in the next several months to solid Republicans we will enter the 2010 election season with a better structural environment than either 2006 or 2008. Nurturing the Republican leaners will be a challenge, but as President Obama and the Democrats are left to govern they will face an increasingly challenging political atmosphere in which they have to appeal to moderates, centrists, independents AND satisfy the party’s liberal activists.  This presents an opportunity for Republicans to be the alternative.

- Brent Seaborn

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