There has been a lot of garment rending and hand wringing the last few days over a new Gallup poll which shows that party identification amongst voters has shifted dramatically over the past few months from Democratic to Republican. Coming as it does at the one-year mark of the Biden administration, this does seem to portend doom for Democratic hopes for midterm election success in November. Party identification is one of the traditional predictors of future results, and this one doesn't look good. The shift in 2021 was the largest shift since 2006, as Gallup reported:
On average, Americans' political party preferences in 2021 looked similar to prior years, with slightly more U.S. adults identifying as Democrats or leaning Democratic (46%) than identified as Republicans or leaned Republican (43%). However, the general stability for the full-year average obscures a dramatic shift over the course of 2021, from a nine-percentage-point Democratic advantage in the first quarter to a rare five-point Republican edge in the fourth quarter.
It is a dramatic shift to be sure. But it's important to realize that at the beginning of last year there was another dramatic shift away from Republicans, likely because of the events surrounding the election and the deadly COVID surge of winter 2021. Reversion to a relatively common partisan split isn't surprising.
And the reasons for this split are obvious.
Some of it just goes back to the polarization we've been living in for the last few years. There's also been a slew of bad news over the past four months, from the messy Afghanistan withdrawal to inflation that has everyone spooked to a new COVID variant.
A year ago, nobody thought we'd be back where we are right now. Back then, the vaccines were rolling out and it appeared that we had "rounded the curve" as Trump would say. Most of us assumed that virtually everyone would get vaccinated and we would get past the point at which there could be so much hospitalization and death that the health care system was on the brink of collapse. But here we are today. And the Democrats are in charge so they are being blamed, rightly or wrongly.
But let's not forget that the Republicans haven't been sitting quietly knitting in the corner for the past year. They have been relentlessly pounding the Democrats with culture war propaganda, from demagoguing critical race theory and school closures to Dr. Suess and Mr. Potatohead and some of it has successfully penetrated the mainstream. If you happen to catch any kind of right-wing media, this is the sort of thing you will see day in and day out:
Of course, bashing America's cities has long been a staple of right-wing dogma. They know who lives there, after all, and it isn't "their kind of people." Cities are also the places where they believe the election was stolen from Donald Trump, which is the shrill MAGA rallying cry.
It's obvious how potent that Big Lie has been among Republican die-hards and most likely some independents as well. And even if you know it's a crock, the mere fact that so many people believe it is disorienting and depressing.
All of these things have contributed to this pervasively grim mood that exists throughout the culture despite the fact that the economy is actually doing extremely well. (If nothing else, this state of affairs proves that economic determinism is a very narrow way to explain the political behavior of the American public.) People feel tired and dispirited and when that happens a "throw the bums out" attitude often takes hold. The Washington Post's Philip Bump argues that this shift proves the Democratic Party's focus on Republican anti-democratic behavior has failed as a political message and that any thoughts the GOP might be permanently harmed by its complicity in January 6th simply haven't resonated:
Gallup's new data undercuts that idea severely. Americans don't appear to be particularly concerned about the Republican Party's response to 2020, particularly given the significant role that Trump still plays in setting its direction. Democrats have repeatedly hoped that Trump would prove so poisonous that the electorate would turn against the GOP. It worked in 2018, when the midterms served as a repudiation of Trump's politics. It didn't work in 2016, though, when Trump first won, and it offered only limited utility in 2020, when Trump earned significantly more support than he had four years prior, even while losing the popular vote by a wider margin. Democrats had unified control of government — but only barely.
And that was before Trump and congressional Republicans tried to subvert Biden's victory. There are a lot of reasons for the swing back to the right over the past year, most of which center on Biden, not Trump. But Democratic efforts to cast the GOP as hostile to democracy itself either aren't landing — as polling has suggested — or aren't compelling.
The polling to which he refers shows that it's actually Republicans who believe that democracy is in danger more fervently than Democrats —because they believe Trump's Big Lie. That doesn't, however, mean that the Democrats' argument isn't landing. It just means that Democratic voters still have some faith that the system will hold. That isn't a rejection of the argument that the Republican Party has become a toxic force. In fact, it may just mean that many voters accept that they are and simply believe that American democracy is strong enough to withstand it. (That may be naive, but it strikes me as quintessential American optimism.)
In any case, there is some other polling that seems to contradict all the agita over the Gallup findings, evidence that the media overlooked. USA Today reported this just a couple of weeks ago:
Republicans lost their lead on a generic congressional ballot, according to a new USA Today-Suffolk University poll, a red flag for the party ahead of this year's midterm elections.The poll found Democrats leading Republicans on a generic ballot 39% to 37%, within the poll's margin of error of 3.1 percentage points but a significant drop from Republicans' 8-point lead in the same poll in November.
This is hard to reconcile with the reaction to the Gallup numbers and it's impossible to know exactly what might have precipitated the drop. But these findings are no less determinative than Gallup's, and none of it can accurately predict what's going to happen next November.
We are living through a very weird, unprecedented time and predictions are a fool's game in these circumstances. I would suggest, however, that if Bump is correct and the Democrats' legitimate alarm about the anti-democratic behavior of the GOP has been falling on deaf ears, there's one thing that will almost certainly get the public's attention: Donald Trump's return. There's no one in the country who makes that argument for the Democrats more clearly than he does.