Election 2020 Politics

The Democratic advantage in party identification has gotten a lot wider

The intent is obvious. How can one simply set aside the views of 74 million people? That the group necessarily has some divergent opinions on things is beside the point; the point, instead, is to present as unignorable whatever thing the speaker hopes to advocate. At other times, support for the former president is described as representing half the country. Would President Biden really do something that alienates half the country?

At its most basic level, the “74 million” expression is an effort to leverage scale. It sounds like a lot and, of course, is. But there are more than 330 million people in the United States, meaning that 74 million is less than a quarter of the total population. This conflation of “big number” with “significant percentage” has been in vogue in the Trump era, as the former president celebrated having more people working than ever before (since the population was higher than ever) and feigned mystification at Biden earning more votes than had Barack Obama in 2008 (when the population was 8 percent smaller).

And despite our frequent depiction of the country as immovably partisan, it is and has for some time been the case that more people identify as Democrats than as Republicans. It’s not a 50-50 split — and, in the past three months, the divide has grown.

Since the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, there’s been a lot of attention paid to voter registration data. In several states, an unusual number of Republicans appeared to be switching their registrations away from the party and, usually, being politically independent. Those reports were generally anecdotal, but data released by Gallup on Wednesday morning shows how the party identification gap grew in the first quarter of 2021.

Before we get to that, we should clarify how party identification works. Some people identify as Democrats. Others identify as Republicans. The plurality, for some time now, identify as independent. But among those independents, most lean toward one party (often out of distaste for the other party). The country is divided into five groups, then: Democrats, Democrat-leaning independents, “true” independents who don’t lean to either party, Republican-leaning independents and Republicans.

Over time, the average density of those identifications has looked like this.

If you look carefully, you can see two things right away.

The first is that the Democrat bars consistently dip below the +50 line while the Republican bars never pass the +50 line at the top. Because of the inclusion of true independents, passing that mark doesn’t mean that half the country leans Democratic. What it means, though is that there are consistently more Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents. (More on that in a second.)

The second is that there was an increase in identified independents in the first quarter of 2021, as shown in the growth of that gray bar. The increase of four percentage points was the most since the fourth quarter of 2017 — perhaps coincidentally the first period after Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville.

In the first quarter, 40 percent of Americans identified as Republican or Republican-leaning independent. The nine-point deficit relative to Democrat identification was the highest since the fourth quarter of 2012. But it was not an exceptional or record-setting gap; late in the administration of George W. Bush, Democrats had a much larger advantage. By 2010, that had faded.

Only a year ago, there was no difference at all between the two parties. Things change quickly.

It’s also not uncommon for there to be shifts in the wake of a presidential election, as Gallup’s analysis makes clear. You can see the pattern in the quarters before, during and after the last five presidential contests below.

In the past three, the density of independents has increased (including party-leaning independents). In four, the density of Republicans and Republican leaners has declined, though more this year than in the others.

What’s hard to suss out of those numbers is a significant trend reshaping party identification. We’ve been skeptics about the idea that a significant number of Republicans switched their party registrations so we may simply not be acknowledging an emerging pattern. Of course, it’s hard to know if a pattern is actually emerging until it does.

What we can say is that presentations of the density of support for Trump that leverage that “74 million voters” number elide that nearly 10 percent more people voted for Biden and that arguments that “half the country” didn’t support Biden ignores not only approval polling but the divide in party identification that has existed for some time and is now wider than at any point in almost a decade.

The minority should have a voice in decision-making, of course! But we should also be honest about when it’s a minority.

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