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A sudden, significant shift in party affiliation just 100 days ahead of the November elections could indicate that Republicans are in trouble.
A new Gallup poll finds that since January a 2% Republican advantage in party identification has turned into an 11% Democratic advantage. Half of all Americans now identify with or lean to the left, compared with 39% who identify as Republican or lean right. Between May and June alone, Republicans saw a five-point decline while Democrats gained three points.
An average of national polls back up the data: Joe Biden is up by nearly nine points, but Jeffrey Jones, Gallup’s senior editor, says that the Gallup data uniquely identifies independent voters, the same group that propelled President Donald Trump into the White House in 2016 despite polls that indicated the opposite. While the majority of polls pointed to a tight race with a Clinton win, independent voters were saying something else entirely.
The survey also indicates that Democrats could have an advantage in down-ballot races. Many of the Republican senators up for reelection this year were first voted into office in 2014, a favorable year for GOP identification.
“There are the people who won’t change their vote no matter what, but the country isn’t as polarized as people think,” says Jones. “Independents make up the largest group of Americans, and these are people who can be more easily swayed. They’re open to persuasion.”
Even though a voter may lean left or right, they may not identify as a Democrat or Republican. About 40% of all Americans identify as independent.
The shift toward those who identify as left-leaning, says Jones, is likely associated with Republican responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest over racial tensions and police brutality nationwide following the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer. “Both of those issues are unfriendly turf for Republicans,” he says.
In early July, evaluations of Trump’s oversight of the COVID-19 crisis reached new lows. More than two-thirds of Americans disapproved of the President’s efforts, according to an ABC News/Ipsos poll. The same poll found that 57% of white Americans, 92% of Black Americans, and 83% of Hispanic Americans disapproved of the President’s handling of race relations.
Biden’s significant lead could also be propelling the change. Jones notes that “people want to be on the side that’s winning. Those on the margins are more comfortable aligning with those in the lead.”
But Democrats shouldn’t rest on their laurels just yet, because the lightning-speed move aligns so closely with large news events that they could also shift back if there’s a change in the topics that dominate the news cycle or if there’s an improvement in the coronavirus pandemic before November.
Democrats regularly experience advantages over Republicans in party affiliation, Jones says, but double-digit advantages are exceedingly rare and usually indicate positive election results. History is on their side.
Democrats enjoyed a short-lived 10-point lead in party identity just ahead of and following their success in the 2018 midterm elections. The party also saw a 10-point lead toward the end of George W. Bush’s second term and into the 2008 election, when they dominated both houses of Congress and the White House. In 1992, ahead of President Bill Clinton’s election, Democrats saw another 10-plus point advantage.
Republicans have not averaged a 10-point or better advantage in party identification since Gallup began measuring the political leanings in 1991.
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