The Threat to Republicans

By Charlie Cook

March 5, 2013

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center attracted a great deal of attention because it found that 62 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that the Republican Party was “out of touch with the American people”; only 33 percent disagreed. Even 36 percent of Republicans thought their party was out of touch. Sixty-five percent of independents also held that view, and, unsurprisingly, 77 percent of Democrats. By 52 percent to 42 percent, Americans said the Republican Party was “too extreme.” Conversely, only 39 percent saw the Democratic Party as too extreme, while 56 percent did not.

As Republicans enter this month of budget battles, their leaders seem keenly aware of these numbers. Among rank-and-file GOP members of Congress, it’s a different story. Some acknowledge the party’s problems, but others do not. The divisions in the ranks are reflected in their approaches to sequestration. One group wants to give House Speaker John Boehner a free hand to negotiate a deal. Another faction doesn’t particularly like sequestration but thinks that, for all of its problems, it is perhaps the only way to get meaningful budget cuts. A third group thinks that the cuts slated under sequestration don’t go nearly far enough. Given these divergent viewpoints, it is no wonder the GOP leadership is having a hard time.

But there is still a threat that public ire is aimed more institutionally—at Congress, at Washington, and at all politicians who work in Washington. The turbulence caused by this universal anger could manifest itself in many ways, selectively hurting members of both parties, depending on their political circumstances. So all sides should take notice of the mounting public disgust.

But, for Republicans, worrying about a generic anti-Washington, anti-incumbent dynamic is something of a luxury. More pressing is the damage occurring to their party’s fabric.

In upcoming polls, keep an eye on party identification, both normal three-way party identification (Democrat, Republican, independent) as well as “leaned party identification,” when pollsters push the independents to see if they lean toward one party. If you begin to find the gap between self-identified Democrats and Republicans widening—it was 8 points on Election Day—it is a sign of more than just a flesh wound; it has progressed to bone damage.

The new Pew poll, for example, found that 32 percent of respondents identified with Democrats, 10 points more than the 22 percent who called themselves Republicans; 41 percent initially called themselves independents. When the independents were pushed and asked which side they leaned toward, Democrats’ share rose to 51 percent. Republicans moved up to 37 percent, opening up a 14-point gap between the two parties. That is substantially wider than the 9.6 percentage point gap in leaned party identification that Pew Research found from all its polling for 2012.

Of course, one poll isn’t a trend. Heck, two or three don’t really make a trend, but given today’s pulsating political dynamics, this measurement is worth watching. The “lean” metric allows us to see the bottom-line impact on the public’s perception of the parties, a more significant finding than polling results that can be influenced by a question’s wording—when, for example, various pollsters ask which party should be “blamed” or held “more responsible” for layoffs or government shutdowns. The media tend to give such charged questions a great deal of prominence, drawing grand conclusions that may or may not be backed up by more durable data.

Democrats had an 8 percentage point advantage in pure party identification for all of Pew’s 2012 polling: 33 percent called themselves Democrats, and 25 percent said they were Republicans. The current 14-point gap in leaned party identification, 51 percent leaned identification for Democrats, 37 percent for Republicans, is sobering. This is wider than what we are used to, and if the trend continues, it means the bone damage is burrowing toward the marrow.

People’s political preferences start off in a fluid, almost liquid state. Over time, attitudes start to jell and, eventually, if the process is uninterrupted, gradually turn solid and very difficult to change. This holds true to a certain extent among all voters, but it particularly applies to young people. Americans tend to develop their political philosophy and partisan leanings in their teens and 20s; once they get into their 30s, they are less likely to change, and into their 40s and beyond, even less likely. That’s why we have generational voting patterns. Americans who grew up during the Great Depression vote differently from baby boomers. Those voters who came of age politically during the Carter-Reagan presidencies have tended to vote pretty strongly Republican. Will those growing up in the next cohort swing strongly in the other direction?

By Charlie Cook

March 5, 2013