A year from the next presidential election, the nation stands at a rare point of political parity: Across 2003 precisely equal numbers of Americans have identified themselves as Democrats, Republicans and independents, a first in 23 years of ABCNEWS polling.
The year’s averages–31 percent for each group–mark an uneven but long-term rise among Republicans, to a new high, and the fewest Democrats in annual averages since 1981. All else being equal, the trends suggest continued Republican competitiveness in election politics, albeit far from the Democrats’ onetime dominance in sub-presidential races.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, party ID data do not show a long-term rise in the number of independents (as those who posit widespread weariness with the major parties would suggest). Instead, at 31 percent in 2003, independents are at about the same level as their long-term average, 32 percent since 1981.
Whatever happens at the presidential level, the change over time in party ID has been accompanied by a change in the division of the nation’s other political spoils.
The Democratic Party controlled 23 more state legislatures than did the Republicans in 1983, and 24 more in 1990; today, Republicans control five more. There were 18 more Democratic than Republican governors in 1983; today, there are two more Republican governors, not counting the yet-to-be sworn in Arnold Schwarzenegger (although the GOP advantage in governorships was higher, +15, in 1997). And in 1983, the U.S. House had 103 more Democrats; today it has 24 more Republicans.
There are strong correlations between the passage of time since 1981 and party holdings of state legislatures, governorships and House seats: .75, .72 and .87 respectively (again, where 1 is strongest, 0 weakest).
Of course, most of this change is in the Deep South, where nominal Democrats have become actual Republicans. One must also acknowledge that Schwarzenegger is only nominally Republican and came to office under some rather unusual circumstances.
What’s really interesting is that, so far, the demographic trends predicted by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira and others have yet to emerge. The combination of a graying population (and thus more love for Social Security) and the massive increase in the Latino population (many subgroups of which have historically trended Democratic) via immigration and differential birthrates was supposed to ensure a Democratic majority. And it still could. But the trend for the past 20 years has been away from the Democrats and toward the GOP.