The news coverage and online chatter about new Gallup findings on party affiliation illustrate the dangers of jumping to conclusions based solely on reading headlines.
“Record-high 40% of Americans Identify as Independents in ’11” is Gallup’s own headline for today’s release of survey data from the past 12 months. The subhead reads: “More Americans identify as Democrats than as Republicans, 31% to 27%.”
Both of these sentences accurately report what the compilation of survey data shows. Gallup asked some 20,400 Americans over the course of 2011 to state their party affiliation. A plurality (40 percent) indicated no affiliation. Of the remainder, more identified themselves as Democrats than as Republicans.
Mainstream media outlets and political commentators seized on the Gallup release to spin the upcoming 2012 elections. Some argued that the data predicted Democratic triumph. Some argued that the data made the case for Mitt Romney over his GOP rivals, on the grounds that he would have the easiest time wooing moderate swing voters. Some concluded that the Republican brand had been seriously tarnished by Tea Party intransigence. And some conservatives blasted Gallup and the media for partisan bias, arguing that the 2010 GOP wave proved it was impossible for the Republican brand to have been as badly tarnished as Gallup’s surveys suggested.
It was, in short, a sort of Festival of Preconceived Notions. But the festival participants would have been better off if they had calmed down, read down to the end of the Gallup release, and thought about the implications a bit before jumping to conclusions.
If they had, they would have read another passage from Gallup that also accurately reflected its survey findings:
Despite the Democratic advantage in party identification, proportionately more American independents lean to the Republican Party than to the Democratic Party. Thus, when independents’ party leanings are taken into account and combined with the party’s core identifiers, the parties end up tied. In 2011, 45% of Americans identified as Republicans or leaned to the Republican Party and 45% identified as Democrats or leaned Democratic.
This is similar to 2010, when the Democrats had a 1-point advantage in leaned party identification, but remains well below the 12-point Democratic advantage in 2008 – the largest Gallup has recorded for either party since it began regularly measuring leaned party identification in 1991.
Furthermore, if all the jump-the-gun readers had carefully scrutinized the Gallup’s accompanying chart depicting party affiliation trends since 1988, they would have recognized that predicting the outcomes of election cycles based on formal party affiliations during the previous year is a practice fraught with peril. In 2009, the average Republican affiliation was also about 27 percent, and the GOP went on to shellac the Democrats in the 2010 elections. Democratic affiliation has been at about 31 percent to 32 percent at the start of election years several times, both at times they did okay or well (1992 and 1996) and at times they did poorly (2002 and 2004).
It is true that in those latter cases, the GOP affiliation was higher than 27 percent. But the independent affiliation was lower. The fact that GOP-leaning voters were somewhat more likely to identify as Republicans in 2003 than in 2011 is interesting, but it doesn’t necessarily suggest a change in voting behavior.
The bottom line is that when both partisans and party-leaning independents are included in the analysis, as they should, Democrats and Republicans each start out with a base of 45 percent in 2012. Something similar happened in the 1993–94, 2001–02, and 2003–04 cycles, all of which turned out well for Republicans. In 2007–08, by contrast, Democrats were up 51 percent to 40 percent.
Folks, these findings qualify as at least modestly good news for the GOP. Perhaps President Obama will be reelected. Perhaps Romney is the best Republican candidate for attracting swings. Perhaps Republicans have been damaged by bare-knuckle brawling on Capitol Hill. But none of these is the most parsimonious reading of the Gallup data.
The real news is that independents are leaning Republican, fully offsetting the Democratic edge in party affiliation. When that happens, the GOP usually has a good year.