Self-Identified Independents Hit Record High, Self-Identified Republicans Hit Record Low
According to a new Gallup poll, more Americans identify as Independents than ever before, but the numbers seem to indicate that the increase has come more at the expense of the GOP than the Democratic Party:
PRINCETON, NJ — Forty-two percent of Americans, on average, identified as political independents in 2013, the highest Gallup has measured since it began conducting interviews by telephone 25 years ago. Meanwhile, Republican identification fell to 25%, the lowest over that time span. At 31%, Democratic identification is unchanged from the last four years but down from 36% in 2008.
The results are based on more than 18,000 interviews with Americans from 13 separate Gallup multiple-day polls conducted in 2013.
In each of the last three years, at least 40% of Americans have identified as independents. These are also the only years in Gallup’s records that the percentage of independents has reached that level.
Americans’ increasing shift to independent status has come more at the expense of the Republican Party than the Democratic Party. Republican identification peaked at 34% in 2004, the year George W. Bush won a second term in office. Since then, it has fallen nine percentage points, with most of that decline coming during Bush’s troubled second term. When he left office, Republican identification was down to 28%. It has declined or stagnated since then, improving only slightly to 29% in 2010, the year Republicans “shellacked” Democrats in the midterm elections.
Not since 1983, when Gallup was still conducting interviews face to face, has a lower percentage of Americans, 24%, identified as Republicans than is the case now. That year, President Ronald Reagan remained unpopular as the economy struggled to emerge from recession. By the following year, amid an improving economy and re-election for the increasingly popular incumbent president, Republican identification jumped to 30%, a level generally maintained until 2007.
Democratic identification has also declined in recent years, falling five points from its recent high of 36% in 2008, the year President Barack Obama was elected. The current 31% of Americans identifying as Democrats matches the lowest annual average in the last 25 years.
As usual the chart tells the story:
Things look worse for Republicans if you add Independent “leaners” into the mix:
In short, self-identified and “leaning” Republican numbers are at a point nearly as low as they were at the lowest point of the Bush 43 Administration, and at the second lowest point they’ve been at since Gallup began tracking these numbers in the late 80s or early 90s. The poll also found that the percentage of Independents grew from 37% o the population at the start of 2013 to 46% by the end of the year, while the percentage of self-identified Democrats started out 2013 at 33% and ended at 29%, while for Republicans it started out at 27% and ended at 22% Most of the decline in Democratic/Republican self-identification occurred in the final quarter of the year with a +3 point gain for Independents and a -2 point loss for both Republicans and Democrats.
The first thing that comes to mind in looking at this numbers, of course, is the extent to which the numbers tend to fluctuate depending on the relative fortunes of the two major political parties. When things are going badly for either of those parties, some percentage of the people who self-identify with that party tend to start considering themselves to be “Independent,” something which suggests that many people, although by no means all, who call themselves independents are in fact marginal Republicans or Democrats who are taking refuge under the “Independent” banner at some point because they’re in some sense upset with the direction their party has taken, or just plain embarrassed by what their party has turned into.
That last point leads into the probable reason for why we’ve seen a larger drop-off in the number of self-identified Republicans this year than self-identified Democrats. Between the various gridlock stories earlier in the year, and of course the Government Shutdown earlier in the year, it’s quite likely that people who generally consider themselves leaning to the right in some respects, but not nearly as far as the base of the GOP have tended to distance themselves from the Republican brand. Indeed, as we can see from the second chart above, the gap between Republican and Democratic identification that includes Independent “leaners” has been growing significantly over the years and those are the years that coincide with some of the most contentious years on Capitol Hill.
The question, of course, is whether this means anything in terms of election results, and that’s much harder to say. It is worth noting, of course, that the most recent time that the number of self-identified Republicans hit its most recent peak during the first two years of the Bush 43 Administration, and that the last time that GOP and Democratic “leaners” were essentially tied occurred roughly around the time when the GOP recaptured control of the House in 2010, while the period of the widest gap coincides with the period during which Democrats recaptured Congress for the first time in 12 years and won the White House in 2008. At the same time, GOP numbers have been falling steadily since that 2010 period, and they’ve still managed to hold on to the House and seem to be on a track to do that again in 2014 as well as a better than even chance of winning control of the Senate in November, or at least coming very, very close to doing so. So, that suggests that these self-identification numbers may not matter as much as it appears at first glance, and that, at the very least, they aren’t nearly as important as external factors such as the state of the economy and candidate selection. Nonetheless, it would be foolish of the GOP to ignore the fact that it has lost ground in recent years and to perhaps engage in some self-reflection over why that might be the case and how it can be reversed.