WASHINGTON — It's an off-year for national electoral politics, with only a few big gubernatorial races later in the year in Virginia and New Jersey. Still, polling data show the great shift in the nation's two major political parties is continuing and some of those changes could have significant impacts at the ballot box.
Earlier this month Gallup released data showing a sharp drop in the number of people who chose to identify as Republican in the first quarter of 2021.
The 9-point gap between the two parties was the largest Gallup had recorded in almost a decade.
Democrats celebrated the numbers, but Republicans and analysts were quick to point out the figures don’t necessarily represent a departure from past political norms. The last time the Democrats held this large an advantage, Barack Obama had just won his second term in the White House.
In fact, going back in time, Democrats have held even larger advantages in Gallup’s partisan affiliation data, particularly when the party was riding an election wave.
Back in 2008, when the Great Recession was just beginning and Barack Obama was cruising to his White House first win, Democrats held a massive 14-point edge in party affiliation. In 1999, just after Democrats did surprisingly well in Bill Clinton's second midterm election, the party had an 11-point advantage. And in 1993, just after Bill Clinton first won the White House, Democrats had a 12-point edge in party ID.
That's all good evidence for the Republican argument that "we've seen this before." And further bolstering their point of view is the fact those numbers bounced back, of course. Republicans held the affiliation edge in the mid-1990s and the early '00s, and the two parties were basically even in early 2020.
But another trend in politics suggests that what we are seeing might be more than a somewhat typical election-related bump for Democrats. Data from the Pew Research Center show that, increasingly, different people are populating the two major political parties — with Republicans and Democrats moving in sharply different directions among college-educated voters.
At the beginning of this century, Republicans held an 11-point edge on party affiliation among college-educated voters. By the time Barack Obama was president, the figures had flipped to become a 4-point edge for the Democrats. And as President Donald Trump’s term was winding down, the numbers had come full-circle and the Democrats had a 13-point edge among college-educated voters on party affiliation.
So, the data suggest that what we are seeing might be more than just a sudden Democratic edge in party affiliation. Those 2021 changes are coupled with a larger shift in party composition. And that might have real impacts come election time because voters with different levels of educational attainment have long exercised their right to vote at different rates.
In 2018, voters with a bachelor's degree cast ballots at a much higher rate than other parts of the electorate, according to data from the U.S. Census. Their 64-percent voting rate was 12 points higher than those with some college and 25 points higher than those whose highest level of educational attainment is a high school diploma.
As Republicans shed college-educated voters, the party could find a new challenge that compounds the Democratic edge in affiliation. Even if the affiliation numbers bounce back this time, the different people in the GOP might make it more difficult for the party to get big turnout numbers in 2022. Midterm elections in particular are often about which party can excite and turn out their voters.
To be sure, there are still a lot of question marks. It's not yet clear what Trump's impact will be on the 2022 race, or how voters will feel about President Joe Biden 18 months from now.
But the drop in GOP party ID, coupled with the Republican's loss of college-educated voters, could spell trouble for the party in coming elections. It's not just how many people are calling themselves Republicans in early 2021 that looks like a potential problem for the party, it is which voters are identifying with the GOP.