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Americans Cross Party Lines

Decades of research into political attitudes show the impact of an individual's partisan preference on a wide range of opinions, including vote choices and evaluation of public policies. Partisanship is so powerful as a predictor that political observers frequently pay close attention to how Americans' preferences for the Democratic and Republican Parties change over time. Historically, more Americans have identified with Democrats than Republicans. Looking at the last 14 yearly Gallup averages of party identification, Republicans have had an advantage just once, in 1991.

But Gallup polls* conducted since last September reveal a shift in Americans' partisan preferences. In the first quarter of 2002, Gallup's polls showed an average of 34% of Americans identifying themselves as Republicans, 31% as Democrats, and 34% as independents. Similarly, in the last quarter of 2001, 33% said they identify with the Republican Party, 31% with the Democrats. Furthermore, the percentage of Americans who currently identify themselves as Republicans is about equal to the number who say they are political independents; the last time either party enjoyed parity with the independent group was in 1990, when Democrats outnumbered independents.

The shift toward the Republican Party was first evident in September and October 2001, following the terrorist attacks, when several Gallup polls showed more Americans saying they identified with the Republican Party than with the Democratic Party. By November, a Republican edge was appearing consistently in Gallup polls.

George W. Bush's overwhelming popularity may be a key factor in explaining the shift. Bush's job approval ratings remain in the mid-70s and have been as high as 90% since Sept. 11. A similar shift toward the Republican Party occurred in 1991, coinciding with the Persian Gulf War and high approval scores for then-president George H. W. Bush.

Will the Change Persist?

Since 1988, there have been just two other periods of a sustained Republican advantage in partisanship. If history is a guide, it is unlikely that the Republican Party will be able to maintain its current advantage very long. The Republican edge of 1991 disappeared by early 1992, as Americans endured an economic recession and the elder Bush's sagging popularity led to an unsuccessful re-election bid.

The second period of Republican advantage occurred in late 1994 and early 1995, shortly after Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress. This, too, was short-lived; by the end of 1995, more Americans were again identifying themselves as Democrats.

In both prior cases, as now, the Republican advantage was never that large, amounting to just a few percentage points. Such small advantages are difficult to sustain -- the last major sustained shift (or "realignment") in partisanship occurred in 1932, as the nation's partisan preferences moved from solidly Republican to solidly Democrat during the Great Depression and the Franklin D. Roosevelt presidency. Since that time, political observers have been on the lookout for the next major shift in partisan preferences. While some argue it may have occurred in 1980 following Ronald Reagan's election, or in 1994 when Republicans took control of Congress, Republicans have failed to sustain a plurality preference in partisanship among Americans after either of those events. The current Republican edge seems likely to disappear if, and when, President Bush's high levels of popular support erode.

*These results are based on telephone interviews with randomly selected national samples of approximately 1,000 adults, aged 18 and older. For results based on these samples, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3%. 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.

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