About this Blog
About The Author
Email Me

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

« Obama Needs a New Speechwriter | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | First Thoughts on Specter v. Sestak »

More on the Recent Changes in Party Identification

Recently, Pew published an interesting graphic on historical party identification that enables us to continue our discussion of partisan affiliation through time. This is the picture that Pew presents.

Pew Partisanship.gif

It's important to note that prior to 1989, the party identification data is from Gallup. After 1989, it is from Pew. This is an interesting picture - and it generally squares with what we know about the partisan battles over the last 75 years. Importantly, it does not track ideology, which makes a huge difference. In particular, 1946 to 1964 is a period of Democratic dominance, but not necessarily liberal dominance - certainly not in the Congress, where a coalition of Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats was often able to thwart northern liberals. I've discussed this before, and my general sense of the post-war period is that it is best understood as one of ideological balance, with discrete, short-lived periods of liberal "breakthroughs," like 1964-1966.

Now, let's compare this data to the exit poll data we reviewed last week. We'll also include Gallup's partisanship data from 1989 forward. All of this is contained in the following chart:

Gallup, Pew and Exit Party ID, 1972-2008.jpg

There are three salient points about this graph:

Changes in Gallup and Pew Generally Track Exit Poll Changes. All three tick upwards during fat times for the Republican Party, most notably around Reagan's reelection in 1984. Lean times show a tick back downwards. This is as should be expected.

Gallup and Pew "Over-Dramatize" The Exit Poll. Slight changes in the exit polls tend to be more dramatic in the Gallup and Pew samples. This is especially apparent if we look at 1984-2004. The exit polls show only modest changes - with Republican self-identifiers ticking down to 35% from 36%, then up to 37% in 2004. Meanwhile, Gallup and Pew show a great deal more variability, each moving about 5% over the period. This is consistent with a point I made last week. GOP self-identification might have dropped 10+ point in recent media polls, but only 5 points in the last exit poll. This is not necessarily good news for the GOP, as fewer changes in exit poll party identification indicate that the actual electorate has a more stable partisan orientation. This means that ground lost might not easily be ground regained.

Gallup and Pew Consistently Underestimate Republican Identifiers Relative to the Exit Poll. Pew tends to be more pessimistic about the GOP's standing than Gallup, but both always show fewer Republicans than the exit polls. The difference is typically 5 to 7 points. What could account for this? I can think of two explanations.

(a) The exit polls are a snapshot of party identification on a single day, while the Gallup and Pew numbers are an average of the whole year. In 2008, both Gallup and Pew showed the GOP at its strongest point shortly before Election Day. Gallup generally showed the GOP stronger in the fall of 2004 than in the Spring or Summer of that year. [Unfortunately, I was unable to locate monthly or quarterly party identification numbers for prior presidential election years.] Why might this be? Some subset of "natural" Republican partisans might only return to their political home when the campaign begins in earnest, around Labor Day. If so, an annual average of party identification - or one that looks at out-years - might systematically underestimate GOP strength relative to where it is on Election Day.

(b) Non-voters are less likely to identify themselves as Republicans than voters, and they are included in the Gallup and Pew numbers. In fact, recent turnout - which is at its highest in some time - is still less than 60% of the voting age population, which means that about 40% of the Gallup and Pew samples in recent years should be non-voters. In a year like 1996, non-voters will constitute more than half of these samples. According to the National Election Study, non-voters are not as inclined to see themselves as Republicans as voters (on a five point partisanship scale: strong Democrat, weak Democrat, Independent, weak Republican, strong Republican). In fact, from 1972 to 2004, the average difference in Republican identification between non-voters and voters was fourteen points. This trend is muted on the Democratic side, as a good portion of non-voters are inclined to see themselves as "weak" Democrats.

I think the take home point from all of this is fairly clear. The Gallup, Pew, and other media pollsters tracking party identification offer data that is of real value - but it has to be interpreted with care. There are big, consistent differences between media polling data on partisanship throughout the year versus the Exit Poll, which is a better metric for partisanship on the day that it matters, Election Day.

Just as Gallup, Pew, and others "over-dramatize" changes in party identification - I think the recent meme on the decline and fall of the contemporary GOP has been "oversold." That's not to say that the party is not in a rough spot at the moment, but just that the analysis by many pundits is like a good steak that's been cooked just a bit too long.

-Jay Cost