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GOP is losing ground in party-affiliation polling

There is more bad news for the GOP arising from 2006: a swing in party ID toward Democrats and independents.  By Charlie Cook, National Journal.
/ Source: National Journal

WASHINGTON — Last month I wrote a column suggesting that "the Republican brand" had been damaged over the last year, and I quoted several Republicans who agreed with that proposition.

The Iraq war had certainly taken a toll on the GOP's image, as had various scandals and a general dissatisfaction with Congress and Washington, which has been under total Republican control for five of the last six years.

A recent report by the Gallup Organization provided further corroboration of this theory. Each year Gallup aggregates the results of all of its national political surveys for the year and takes a look at party identification.

In 2006, this amounted to interviews with 30,655 adults, with an 0.57-point error margin -- about as close as you can get to perfection in the world of polling.

For 2001 through 2005, the party identification balance in Gallup polling -- before independents are asked which way they lean -- remained within 2 points of each other.

In 2001, Democrats had an edge of eight-tenths of a percent; in 2002 the GOP was up by nine-tenths of a percent, then in 2003, Republicans were 1.9 points ahead.

That GOP lead shrank to six-tenths of a point in 2004, then Democrats pulled within the error margin, with just four-tenths of a point separating the parties.

But for 2006, Democrats pulled away, leading Republicans by 3.9 points, with 34.3 percent identifying themselves as Democrats, 30.4 percent as Republicans and 33.9 percent as independents.

This represents a swing of 5.8 points in just three years, from a GOP lead of 1.9 points to a deficit of 3.9 points. It's not that Democrats grew that much; it's that Republicans dropped, with the independent column picking up much of the slack.

But the real jaw dropper is when independents are asked which party they lean toward. This is important because historically, independents who lean toward a party tend to vote almost as consistently for that party as those who identify themselves with the party. There are just some people who like to call themselves independents but, functionally speaking, are really partisans.

In this category of leaners, Democrats had an advantage of 1.3 points in 2001. The parties were within the margin of error in 2002, when four-tenths of a point separated them and in 2003, when there was just a one-tenth of a point difference.

In 2004, Democrats had a 2.7 point advantage, and it grew to 4.4 points in 2005.

But in 2006, this category exploded to a 10.2-point advantage for Democrats: 50.4 percent for Democrats, 40.2 percent for Republicans. The remaining 9.4 percent did not lean toward either party.

This 10.2-point advantage is the biggest lead either party has had since Gallup began tracking the leaners in 1991.

Adults, not voters?
Perhaps most alarming for Republicans is that for the Gallup interviews conducted during the last quarter of 2006, the Democratic advantage was a whopping 14.2 points: 52.3 percent for Democrats and 38.1 percent for Republicans.

In my mind, I can already see many Republicans and conservatives, particularly in the blogging set, rushing to their computer keyboards to point out that the Gallup numbers were among adults and not voters.

But I seriously doubt that any credible pollster or psephologist (a student of elections and polling) would argue that the differential between adults and voters, particularly presidential election year voters, would amount to more than 10 points.

Does this mean that Republicans cannot hold the White House in 2008? While more people are saying that, including more than a few GOP pros themselves, I think that is pushing things too far.

A more cautious interpretation of these numbers is that whatever inherent advantages the GOP had in Electoral College math might be gone.

Also, the war in Iraq, President Bush's approval ratings and the performance of the new Democratic-controlled Congress will all help determine whether the advantage shifts clearly toward Democrats.

Whether Democrats self-destruct is anyone's guess, but so far, they clearly haven't. Quite a few Republicans concede that they are surprised and disappointed that Democratic leaders have been so cautious and measured in their actions this year, seemingly mindful that their House and Senate majorities are extremely precarious and they hold quite a few seats in Republican territory.

As for Iraq, there was little if any hope in the recent National Intelligence Estimate, and it would seem very unlikely that the public and Congress will give Bush's proposed troop increase the nine or 12 months it would probably need to work.

My guess is that in the absence of clear progress by June, the president will lose many Republican lawmakers who have stuck with him so far.