PRINCETON, NJ -- The year 2009 marked the end of a three-year run of majority Democratic support among U.S. adults. Last year, an average of 49.0% of Americans identified as Democrats or said they leaned Democratic, the party's first yearly average below 50% since 2005. Still, Democrats maintained an average eight-point advantage in support over Republicans last year, as 40.7% of Americans identified as Republicans or leaned Republican.
The 2009 results are based on aggregated data from all Gallup and USA Today/Gallup polls conducted last year, encompassing interviews with more than 21,000 Americans. In each poll, Gallup asks Americans whether they consider themselves Republicans, Democrats, or independents. Independents are subsequently asked if they lean to the Republican or Democratic Party.
"The increase in overall GOP support is owing to an increase in the percentage of Republican-leaning independents, from 11% in the first quarter to 15% in the third and fourth quarters."
The 2009 yearly averages do not tell the whole story of changes in party support last year, as they to some degree obscure the sharp decline in the Democrats' advantage over the course of the year. In the first quarter of 2009, coincident with the beginning of the Obama administration, Democrats enjoyed one of the largest advantages for either party since 1991, 13 percentage points (51.7% of Americans identified as Democrats or leaned Democratic, versus 38.7% who identified as or leaned Republican). In each subsequent quarter, the percentage of Democratic supporters declined, and by the fourth quarter, the Democratic advantage had shrunk to 5 points (47.2% to 42.2%).
The five-point party gap in the fourth quarter of 2009 represents the smallest Democratic advantage since the second quarter of 2005. Thus, the gains the Democratic Party made in public support during the last several years of the George W. Bush administration have disappeared.
Though total Republican support did increase last year, this came mostly from what can be considered "soft support." The increase in overall GOP support is owing to an increase in the percentage of Republican-leaning independents, from 11% in the first quarter to 15% in the third and fourth quarters. The percentage of Americans with a stronger attachment to the GOP -- those who initially identify themselves as Republicans -- was stable and, if anything, showed a slight decline over the course of the year. Also, there was a two-point drop in the percentage of Democratic identifiers and a two-point drop in the percentage of Democratic-leaning independents.
Rise in Independence in 2009
One other notable development in the 2009 party identification data is an increase in the percentage of Americans identifying themselves initially as political independents (regardless of whether they subsequently said they leaned to either party). The 36.6% of Americans who identified themselves as independents in 2009 was up from 34.9% in 2008.
It is not unusual for the percentage of independents to increase in a non-election year. But the 2009 average did mark the second-highest percentage of Americans calling themselves independents in the just-completed decade, eclipsed only by the 38.6% average of 2007.
Longer term, however, the 2000s showed a decline in political independence compared to the 1990s, with an average of 36.8% of Americans identifying as political independents from 1990-1999, compared with 34.8% from 2000-2009. Meanwhile, the proportion of Americans identifying as Republicans was a point higher in the 2000s (30.9%) than in the 1990s (29.9%), while Democratic support was steady at 33.3% in both decades.
Gallup did not begin regularly measuring leaned party identification until 1991. But the average percentage of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents was similar in the 1990s (42.5%) and the 2000s (42.6%), as was the percentage of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (47.6% from 1991 to 1999, and 47.9% from 2000 to 2009).
These decade-long averages suggest much long-term stability in party preferences, even though these preferences can move in the short term.
Results are based on aggregated data from Gallup polls conducted in 2009, each based on telephone interviews with 1,000 or more national adults, aged 18 and older. For results based on the total sample of 21,905 national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±1 percentage point.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.