The End of the Republican Party?

The release of several recent surveys tracing trends in partisan affiliation in this nation, including two by the Gallup and Pew survey organizations, provides a timely opportunity to respond to recent comments by Vijay and Conor regarding the future of the party system.  Several pundits, looking at these and similar recent surveys, have openly wondered whether the results, to borrow the title of a Time magazine article (see here) on the subject, indicate the “party is over” for the Republicans. Of course, these assessments aren’t new; over a year ago the New York Times magazine asked whether we are witnessing “The End of Republican America?”  But the surveys, combined with several high profile events including the Specter defection and the Democratic victory in the special election to replace Gillibrand in New York’s 20th congressional district, provide additional credence to this line of thought. Writing for Time, Michael Grunwald summarizes the data as follows: “Polls suggest that only one-fourth of the electorate considers itself Republican, that independents are trending Democratic and that as few as five states have solid Republican pluralities.”

What are we to make of these analyses?  First, when it comes to gauging Americans’ partisan leanings, we need to heed my oft-repeated warnings from the general election – not all surveys are alike.  A general rule of thumb bears remembering: surveys using a random sample of “all adults” tend to show higher proportions of self-identified Democrats than do surveys sampling only “registered voters”, which in turn show more Democrats than do surveys of “likely voters”.   To get a sense of how big a difference this makes, consider the following graph from Nate Silver’s site comparing the Democratic advantage according to different pollsters using different survey populations:

Note also that survey results differ depending on the categories available to the respondents.  Some surveys give only three options – Democrat, Republican or Independent, while others provide additional survey options, often by allowing independents to say whether they “lean” toward one party or another. One way to address this variation across polls is to employ the approach I utilized when making my presidential prediction: aggregate the different polls to develop a composite assessment in polling trends. This is exactly what Pollster.Com did. Here are the results of their combined poll, using surveys from 12 different pollsters:

We see, then, consistent with the “Republicans are dying” media story line, that Republicans support has declined by roughly 3-4 percentage points (30%-26.5%) since last November’s election – indeed, the decline begins even before the election, although it is interrupted by the election itself. Interestingly, however, there has been an almost equal decline of about 3% in the number of self-identified Democrats since Obama’s election, although the total percentage of Democrats remains about 10% higher than total percent of Republicans.

What is going on here?  We can’t know for sure without disaggregating these results to look more closely at the microtrends among subgroups, something I hope to do so as soon as the latest NES results are available.  In part, however, the graph indicates that both Republicans and Democrats gained numbers in the runup to the 2008 election, and both suffered declines afterward.  This is consistent with previous electoral patterns, and reflects the tendency for respondents to self-identify with one of the two parties during the heat of a presidential election, only to shed the party label after the election.

But I don’t think that explains the entire decline. Note that the number of independents is up, continuing a trend that predates the 2008 election. A recent Pew survey shows this growth in independents extends back at least six years.

The Pew results suggests (although we can’t be sure in the absence of individual-level data) that the growth comes primarily from Republicans switching to independent. However, the findings are open to different interpretations, primarily because Pew does not show the actual survey question on their website.  So it is not clear to me how they define “independents”; is it a pure category, or does it subsumes respondents who call themselves “weak partisans”  or who lean independent.

To see why this makes a difference, consider the National Election Studies time series data in the following graphs.  It shows a long-term decline in the number of “pure” independents from a high of about 18%  in 1974 to 10% in 2004.

This is only a quarter of the independents indicated in the Pew survey.  However, during that time, the number of independents who “lean” toward one of the two parties has grown from 22 to 29%. (The actual question text is as follows:

“Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as a
Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, or what?”
(IF REPUBLICAN OR DEMOCRAT) “Would you call yourself a strong
(IF INDEPENDENT, OTHER [1966 and later: OR NO PREFERENCE]:) “Do you
think of yourself as closer to the Republican or Democratic party?”

So independent “leaners” are respondents who initially self-identify as independents, but if pushed will acknowledge “leaning” toward one party or the other.

During the same period the number of people who are strongly partisan has also increased from 25% to 33%,  although the number has not reached the levels viewed during the 1950’s and early ‘60”s.

The growth in the number of “leaners” appears to have come at the expense of “weak partisans” – those who say they weakly identify with either the Republican or Democratic party. From a high of 43% in 1966, the number of weak partisans declines to 28% in 2004.

What this suggests, then, is that the polarization of American politics is reflected in the growth of a subset of the general public that, since the 1970’s, is more willing to strongly identify with one of the two major parties.  But at the same time a growing bloc of Americans remain less strongly committed to either party, suggesting they are more willing to switch party allegiances depending on perceptions regarding how effectively the parties, and their leading candidates, deal with the major issues of the day.  Viewed from the perspective of more than half a century of polling data, then, I’m not convinced that we are seeing a permanent decline in the Republican Party’s base support, so much as a more short-term reaction to recent events.  Rather than become Democrats, these “lapsed” Republicans are in a wait-and-see period, hedging their bets depending on how well Obama and the Democratically-controlled Congress deal with the present economic crisis and other pressing issues.  If circumstances change, however, they are just as likely to switch partisan leanings.

More generally, if party identification has become more malleable since the 1960’s, it makes it much more difficult, and perhaps less meaningful, to try and predict long term trends in partisan affiliation.  A strong subset of Americans remain, at heart, moderate in their ideological outlook, pragmatic in their policy views, and not strongly committed to either party.  In the hothouse media environment, with the increasingly polarized political coverage, we often lose sight of the fact that most Americans don’t share the punditocracy’s more partisan views.

Having said this, there are some long-term demographics trends that should give Republicans pause for concern, particularly among women and younger voters. Even here, however, analysts tend to overstate the certainty that these trends will work over time in Democrats’ favor. I’ll deal with these in a later post.


  1. There is some thin ice one could tread right now, in agreement with Matt’s poll numbers, but based on a darker explanation. The quick takeway from what’s to come? In American politics today, it’s only the Fox in the hen house who gets to say things like “Mission Accomplished.”

    Lest someone believe this means human nature is becoming considerably more tolerant…

    … the true believers and the superpatriots will always be with us. Do we have a particular hangup as a society that we can’t stop flogging the dead horse of the culture wars? There are a wealth of experimental findings indicating that “authoritarian personality traits” are a distinct and prevalent factor behind the rally to conservative and religious causes, and these traits are highly responsive to the specific language and values of those causes. Hardly all conservatives or religiously faithful are authoritarian, but enough are to make a mess of political discourse. And their perennial antagonists are apparently a significant constituency too: knee-jerk “anti-authoritarians.”

    This is not George Lakoff’s premise that Dems can simply adopt a wholesome “nucular family values frame” and make off like bandits in the next election. Instead, this is a finding that substantiates why, in tolerant political environments, stubborn antagonisms are so vexingly easily to stir up. Furthermore, that plague of the modern political sphere, negative advertising, has tapped this issue consciously. (See Tali Mendelberg’s now-famous study.) There are spectacular spikes in expressed authoritarian / anti-authoritarian values when psychologists prime people with “perceived threats.” The triggering threat can be as insubstantial as voicing a stance considered unpatriotic on an abstract value. Studies show the spike in authoritarian opinions shows up even at the mere rhetorical suggestion of “disagreement” among social camps … on the most insignificant public issues. (One experiment used the debate over declassifying UFO studies, and got a huge spike in expressed authoritarianism merely by making it clear there was mildly heated debate on this flimsy issue.)

    That’s worth repeating: Authoritarian perceptions arise to some extent out of a strong perception that mere dissensus is a threat. So language like “country first” isn’t redneck lingo. It has a habituated appeal that runs far deeper than mere sentiment. Racial prejudice (the issue of intolerance we’re most concerned with) is probably just icing on the cake — skin color is a patently obvious social fissure that, just by its appearance in conjunction with social debates, has always gotten a good percentage of people explicitly or unconsciously riled.

    Like everyone, I’m wary of reifying any of this research as the clearest understanding of what leads on to what. Note, though, that all of this is quite unrecognizable within the great tradition in political science that says that all voter decisions rest on ignorance (Lippmann, Converse, Downs). For more on how these perceived threat dynamics impact our political impasses, good material to consult is Gibson, Stenner, Mendelberg and even Erich Fromm (Escape from Freedom). And (shudder) there’s always Stanley Milgram.

    As Matt likes to say, it’s important to follow demographics and polling responses, but results hinge so much on how questions are pitched (framed / primed).

    How questions are framed is ultimately in the hands of the parties, who discipline and amplify different rhetorical tropes.

    Just ’cause the Republican party is facing a tough fight now, it don’t mean they lost their mojo.

    The next Karl Rove or Lee Attwater (or Dick Morris) is going to have no trouble tapping the same underlying threat perceptions through the non-issues du jour. It will always be a challenge to overcome that polarizing process.

    (Matt, I’ve been pestering you about PACs because I still have no sense for what tips the playing field in terms of campaign money and business’ regulatory and taxation fears. Usually, corporations don’t just follow their gut, right? But PACs do have power to polarize rhetoric.)

    In this read of democratic reality, there are days that dawn a little brighter. Some evidence shows that even among authoritarians, ethnic differences can be made to lose their salience. More important, the way it can happen looks exactly like the moment we are living through now: An ethnic minority isn’t just beating expectations, he has come to power and been universally annointed to take up the role legitimate “supreme authority” to settle our social disputes. (Gibson, among others, did great work on South Africa that reveals some of this in regard to Mandela’s time in office.) The wingnuts won’t evaporate, who cling to an alternate, conspiratorial narrative, but they will be the exception to a more broadly peaceful trend. Economic downturn and a future uptick in urban violence could blunt the effect somewhat, but not completely.

  2. You hint at this in your analysis, but I think there’s a strong possibility the increase in polarization has had a causative relationship with the increase in ‘leaning independents.’ The more pressure that is exerted forcing people into one of two molds, the more people have responded by refusing to be assigned to a mold, while recognizing their outlook coincides with one party more than another. So the increase in polarization and ‘strong partisan ID’ has also led to growing alienation by a more open-minded group and the conversion of ‘weak party ID’ into increasing number of ‘independent leaners.’ If this is the case, then it would also be possible to reverse this process and increase party affiliation by being less polarizing.

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