A few years ago, I had the privilege of speaking to a gentleman who worked for the Gallup Organization. We had a substantive discussion about the business and standards of opinion polling, especially with regard to elections. The gentlemen and I differed on the question of party demographics. Polls weight the responses from people according to a number of demographics in an attempt to show poll results in a context proportional to the real population. This is controversial in terms of party identification, because different polls use different weights. The key question comes down to whether people are quick or reluctant to change their party identification. Also, party identification may or may not be salient to an election’s conduct. Ronald Reagan, for example, was undeniably a Conservative in his politics, yet he won support from many Democrats, Democrats who voted for Democrats in Congressional elections but voted for Reagan as President.
This phenomenon, that party identification may or may not be a factor in support for a candidate in a given election, depends on an often overlooked quality in voters; party identification is not necessarily the same thing as their values. To understand this, let’s look at what’s happened since 2005 to party identification. It’s reasonable, I think, to say that in the last three years a greater proportion of voters consider themselves Democrat, while a smaller proportion of voters consider themselves Republican. Imagine three pools of voters – Democrats, Independents, and Republicans. At first they are all roughly the same size, but events cause this to change. First off, the Republican Party chased off its Conservative wing by breaking key promises and abandoning the values which gained it the majority in Congress. Ironically, when in subsequent elections the Republicans lost House and Senate seats, they blamed it on the Conservatives, rather than admit and correct their error. During that same time, the Republican Party began to steadily desert the President , even where his position matched the stated positions of Republican office-holders and candidates; Republicans fell prey to the lie that President Bush was wrong in his policies and appointments, and millions of Americans who supported the President were ostracized by his own party. Alienated by the Republican Party, Conservatives and Bush supporters in large part chose to sit out the 2006 midterm elections, and rather than heed the cost of their folly, the GOP in the main chose to tack hard to the Left, not quite to the point of supporting the madness of Pelosi and Reid, yet not opposing them in force either. Having banished millions of supporters of the President and Conservatives from its ranks, the GOP further emasculated itself in imitation of the Democrats. This clearly reduced public support for the Republicans.
As for the Democrats, their continued success in the media and in the elections held after 2004 have emboldened the party, and there is strong optimism in the DNC that in addition to increasing control of both houses of Congress, they will claim the White House in 2008 to complete the trifecta. Liberals are greatly enthused by the campaign of Barack Obama and other radicals, and the optimism of the party has energized public support. As a result, the situation is one where fewer and fewer voters are willing to publicly voice support for a Republican, and alignment with the Democrats is becoming once again the norm, indicating a return to pre-1994 levels of power and influence.
All is not as it may appear, however. Democrats enjoyed a resurgence in the spring of 2004, which fell as Kerry’s campaign proved to be something less than advertised. Also, the feuding between Obama and Clinton threatens party unity for the fall campaign. But the greatest threat of all lies in assuming that strong party identification for the Democrats will result in comparable gains in the election of the President. I noted the shift in party identification and public support of a political party, but people vote according to their value system, which changes slowly if at all. I mentioned Reagan earlier; Reagan won support from some Democrats because of his strong defense stance, and his common-sense support for American business. In the Presidential race, therefore, the door is open for a candidate to win support outside his party, or at least to consolidate support within his party, by clearly stating where he stands and what he will do.
That said, however, it is clear that at this point the Democrats have build a reasonable degree of unity, even with the fractious debate between Obama and Clinton supporters. The Republicans, on the other hand, have a crisis of credibility, not only with the American public but within their own ranks. There is tremendous opportunity for an amazing comeback, but at the present point in time there is little evidence that the GOP is willing to do what is needed to make that happen.