One of the telltale indicators for a coming election is polling of party identification. Many election polls are weighted based on a number of factors of what the pollster thinks the electorate will look like. Demographic factors such as ethnicity, age, and gender are fairly stable but party identification is malleable. Which party people support can vary greatly from election to election and plays a significant role in the election’s outcome.
Gallup‘s poll of party identification was released this morning and paints a stark picture for Republicans. The poll found that fully half of respondents either identify as Democrat or lean Democrat while only 39 percent identify as or lean Republcan. This represents an 11-point gap.
Broken down further, 32 percent identified as Democrat while 26 percent identified as Republican. Among independents, 18 percent preferred the Democrats while 13 percent leaned Republican.
These figures underscore the fact that Republicans cannot win by turning out their base alone. With a smaller base than the Democrats, Republicans have to do better with independents, but that is not happening.
As I often stress, polls are merely snapshots of a particular moment in time. To get the most from the poll, we should look at trends. The Gallup poll is taken monthly and what the trend shows should be even more alarming for Republicans than the topline number. The year started with Republicans leading Democrats in party identification by 47-45 percent.
Democrats closed that gap to one point in February and took a 45-43 lead, essentially a too-close-to-call tie in March. The gap remained close in April and May and then the bottom dropped out for Republicans in June when the 11-point gap emerged. At that point, Republicans lost five points while the Democrats gained three, suggesting a move towards “undecided” or “none of the above” for some Republican voters.
The polling mirrors 2020’s events closely. Republicans gained sympathy with voters during impeachment, but the haphazard response to the pandemic squandered that goodwill. The racial protests and resurgence of Coronavirus caused the bottom to drop out in June.
Polling averages are hard to come by for party identification polls but there are other ways to check Gallup’s work. The shift towards the Democrats closely matches the sharp decline in President Trump’s job approval and Joe Biden’s surge in election polling. It also more loosely correlates with direction-of-country polling which fell off the proverbial cliff in March.
So, what does the Democratic double-digit advantage mean in real terms? The advantage is uncommon but not unprecedented so we can look to the history of past elections for clues. Among the periods where one party held such an advantage were near the end of George H. W. Bush’s term in 1992 and most of George W. Bush’s second term. In both those cases, Democrats scored major victories in the elections of 1992, 2006, and 2008.
Democrats also held an 11-point lead in October 2018 just prior to that year’s blue wave. The gap narrowed to three points in early November, which may help explain how Republicans saved the Senate.
On the other hand, Democrats posted double-digit leads in the winter of 1999 amid the impeachment of Bill Clinton. This did not prevent George W. Bush from eking out an Electoral College victory with a popular vote loss the following year. Democrats gained seats in both houses of Congress that year, however.
Republican landslide victories in 2010 and 2014 occurred with less than a 10-point advantage in party identification. In early November 2010, Gallup’s historical record of party affiliation polling shows Republicans at a three-point deficit while Republicans were down by five points just before the election of 2014. Republicans were down by three points in November 2016, which closely mirrors the presidential popular vote results.
For 2020, the shift in party identification is a warning sign for Republicans. The problems that the GOP faces are clear from a plethora of polling: A pandemic that the Administration has handled poorly, a response to racial strife that has makes many Americans see the president as a bigot, and narrowing approval for President Trump’s handling of the economy. How to correct these problems is not so simple, especially with a president who is loathed to admit mistakes and who is doubling down on getting the country back to normal even as Coronavirus cases spiral out of control.
The poll is not predictive of the election, but it is indicative of a trend. Republicans have less than four months to reverse that trend and time is running out.
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