New party affiliation numbers out from Gallup have buoyed Democrats and created a collective groan among the GOP. In the second quarter of 2015, Gallup’s Party ID numbers find that Democrats and Independent leaning Democrats compose 46% of registered voters compared to 41% for the GOP. Historically, this is nothing new, but after the 2014 midterms the GOP had been hoping for a longer post election bounce.
But, before the sky is falling message starts coming out a few things need to be considered. First, the Obama administration has seen somewhat of an approval recovery in its duties due to victories regarding gay marriage and Obamacare. Second, historically, Republicans have rarely led in party affiliation numbers. Only after the 1991 Gulf War, the 1994 Gingrich Revolution, and the 2001 September 11 terrorist attacks has the party held a lead for multiple quarters. It is far more likely the party is only going to tie Democratic numbers or narrowly trail them. Lastly, it is unclear what impact the Presidential campaign is having on these numbers. It is clear that Hillary Clinton has a high floor and a low ceiling so this might be a result of her name ID and strength in her party while the GOP field is fractured and diverse.
But even if Democrats have an advantage in Party ID so what? In the past Republicans have been able to win elections regardless. In 2000, Democrats held a 5% advantage in Party ID and George Bush still beat Al Gore. In 2004, Democrats held a narrower advantage and Bush was reelected. In essence, while Party ID is a disadvantage for the GOP they can still win elections with it.
The reason is fairly simple, turnout. Until Obama in 2008 and 2012, Democrats have struggled to turn out their voters. Heck, Kerry’s 2004 performance was hailed for its turnout efforts. But nothing has held up compared to the Obama campaigns. The Obama campaign used a double-digit ID advantage to win a 7% victory and in 2012 they masterfully turned a 6% ID edge into a 4% national victory. Of course, Obama will never again be on the Presidential ballot and his appeal to minorities and Millennials is hard to measure. It is even harder to measure the appeal a Clinton candidacy has with these voters, especially if Republicans nominate a woman, a Generation Y or a Hispanic for President.
Republicans should also consider one other fact. They have rarely been ever to maintain ID advantages after big electoral victories. Partly this might relate to the unstable and dissatisfied nature of an angry midterm electorate. But it also speaks to the general nature of the party’s coalition which is heavily reliant on rural/suburban voters well distributed across the country. Democrats, largely concentrated in urban areas, waste many of their votes in district and statewide races.
Another trend has followed the Party ID numbers, shifting favorable ratings of the parties. When the parties are generally close in Party ID their favorable ratings tend to mirror each other or the GOP takes a narrow lead. Consider in the 1st quarter of this year the GOP had a 37% favorable rating compared to 39% for the Democratic Party. At the time both parties were tied in the ID category. Still, like in ID, the GOP has consistently proven they can win with lower favorable ratings largely because a significant minority of Republicans always view their party unfavorably.
Republicans should not go to red alert over these numbers. Historically, the party has proven they can weather bad ID numbers. But they should be concerned. The party has a better shot of winning national elections when the Party ID numbers are closer and ideally the party can close the gap as 2016 nears. If they cannot and worse, if the numbers expand in the opposite direction, the party is likely to be locked out of the White House for another eight years.