A new poll suggests that Americans are leaving the Republican Party in droves. Democrats aren’t doing much better, however, and, as both parties struggle to define themselves, Independents are on the rise.
On the surface, the latest Gallup poll paints a bright future for the Democratic Party. 30% of Americans identify as Democrats, and another 19% consider themselves Democrat-leaning independents. 25%, meanwhile, call themselves Republicans, and 15% identify as Republican-leaning independents.
When partisans and their sympathetic independents are rolled together, 49% can be considered Democrats, and 40% Republicans. The chasm in between – made up of non-partisan independents – is the widest it’s been since 2012, immediately before Barack Obama scored a resounding re-election victory over Mitt Romney.
In the first quarter of 2021, the Democratic Party held a nine-percentage-point advantage over the GOP in party identification and leaning, its largest since 2012. https://t.co/9Wgnvo4iR8
— GallupNews (@GallupNews) April 7, 2021
There’s one very simple way of reading the results, an approach taken by CNN’s Chris Cilliza on Wednesday. Cilliza argued that Donald Trump’s “radical” presidency has soured voters on the GOP, and driven them into the waiting arms of the Democratic party, who came to power as the coronavirus pandemic began to subside. The Republican Party’s “brand is quite clearly damaged after four years of Donald Trump seeking to break every political norm possible,” the CNN analyst wrote.
Just 25% of Americans identified as Republicans in new Gallup data.
That's close to the low water mark for the GOP in modern times.https://t.co/32HZjWXdH4
— Chris Cillizza (@ChrisCillizza) April 8, 2021
Things likely aren’t as black and white. For one thing, Democrats aren’t doing terribly well in the popularity stakes either. The number of people – 30% – who identify as Democrats is just one percent above its all-time low point in 2015. The Republican figure of 25% is low, but was reached in 2013 according to Gallup, and at several points even during Ronald Reagan’s two terms in office, according to Pew Research.
With both parties nearing historic lows, more Americans – 44% when party leaning is discounted – identify as independents than at any point since 2013, when that figure hit 46%. That rise should send alarm bells ringing in party offices across the country, if either party could figure out what it stands for.
Joe Biden, for example, represents only one faction within his party: the pro-business centrist establishment. That establishment, probably exemplified best by Hillary Clinton, has been edged out of the limelight in recent years by more overtly socialist upstarts, among them New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Biden’s own Vice President, Kamala Harris, who was previously rated Congress’ “most liberal Senator,” despite being considered a centrist by the likes of AOC and Bernie Sanders.
Despite this internal schism, the Democratic Party still manages to vote in lockstep on major policies, and displays consistent unity during high-profile battles, for example in voting to impeach Trump and in opposing his Supreme Court justices.
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Cilliza is right in saying that Trump has left the Republican Party “damaged,” however, though “shaken up” might be a better term.
Throughout his presidency, Trump could never count on the undivided support of Republican lawmakers. Senators like Mitt Romney earned liberal plaudits for publicly criticizing Trump, and the late Senator John McCain was the sole obstacle that prevented Trump from repealing Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Even in the runup to the 2020 election, Trump had to contend not just with Democratic opposition, but with attacks by the ‘Lincoln Project,’ a band of Republicans more sympathetic with McCain and Romney’s brand of ‘conservatism’ than Trump’s populism. Seven of these ‘Never-Trumpers’ voted to impeach Trump in February, a defection that would be unthinkable for Democrats.
Trump hasn’t hesitated to criticize the Republican establishment either. When Governors Brian Kemp of Georgia and Doug Ducey of Arizona certified Biden’s electoral win in their states, Trump took to Twitter, calling on his supporters to “vote them out of office.” When top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell called Trump “morally responsible” for the riot on Capitol Hill in January, Trump branded him a “dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack,” and declared “if Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again.”
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Yet the party can’t wash its hands of Trump, who remains the most popular choice of 2024 candidate among Republicans, by a wide margin. And the party’s fall in popularity likely represents not just voters tired of Trump’s scandal and bombast, as the media suggests, but also pro-Trumpers tired of a party that won’t back their man too. As former Trump campaign official Karen Giorno wrote here last month, “It is no longer your grandpa’s Grand Old Party anymore. The Republican Party is now reliant on the Trump base.”
Whatever direction the Republican Party points itself before next year’s midterm elections, and whether Joe Biden manages to keep radical and moderate Democrats together or not, the swelling ranks of independent voters will be crucial to both parties moving forward.
On a longer timeline, the number of voters calling themselves independent has risen steadily since Gallup began telephone polling in 1988. Should the trend continue, the future of the two-party system itself could come into question.
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