The Gallup Organization has asked voters to state their party preference for 70 years now. One insight the Pew Research Center gleaned from a close review of these polls is that, almost invariably, the president’s political party loses ground during his years in office.
At one level, this finding makes sense. Presidents invariably face hard realities in the Oval Office that require them to make tough decisions, the sort of decisions that expend their political capital.
So, Gallup found, when Democrats control the Oval Office, loyalty to the Republican party increases and vice versa. Republicans gained one point during Harry Truman’s presidential years, 11 points during LBJ’s tenure, 3 points during the Carter administration, and 2 points under Clinton. Politically, Kennedy (who in many ways governed from the center-right) was a wash.
Likewise, when Republicans have been in power, Democrats have gained, as they did during the tenures of Eisenhower (+3), Nixon (+7), Ford (+2), and Bushes I (+3) and II (+6).
But, wait, what about the Gipper?
Alone among post-War presidents, Ronald Reagan’s Republican party actually gained ground during his two terms in office, gaining 9 full percentage points between 1981 and 1989.
But that’s not all. As the Pew study points out:
This [9-point Republican gain] probably understates Reagan’s overall legacy, as GOP identification had already spiked four points (and Democratic identification fallen four points) between 1980 and 1981.
If one attributes the dramatic movement toward the Republican party during the election year of 1980 to Reagan, then we’re talking about a net Republican gain of 17 points on the Gipper’s watch.
This is hardly the exception that proves the rule, but compelling evidence of what a clearly articulated and compelling vision can do to revive an ailing political party without sacrificing the principles for which it stands.