Anytime that I write about Gallup polls, I have to add the proviso that I think that Gallup polls are just plain lousy. I am particularly skeptical of any polling they do of the sort that can never be verified by, say, conducting an actual election. So, issue polls and things like self-reported party affiliation polls are near the bottom of my list in terms of me having confidence in the results.
Having provided that caveat, one thing that is nice about Gallup is that they conduct the same kinds of polls over long periods of time, frequently decades, and this allows us to spot certain trends. They’ve been tracking self-reported party affiliation for a long time, and what they’ve generally found is that there are more Democrats and Democrat-leaners than there are Republicans and Republican-leaners. This is a different kind of finding than the subjective ideological measure of liberal vs. conservative.
Over the last thirty years, there have been only a few periods when Republicans reached parity with or a narrow lead over the Democrats in party affiliation.
There have been a few instances in which Republicans held at least a slight edge for multiple quarters. These include:
in 1991, after the U.S. victory in the first Persian Gulf War, under Republican President George H.W. Bush in late 1994 and early 1995, after the Republican victories in the midterm elections that gave the party control of both houses of Congress for the first time in four decades in late 2001 and early 2002, when Americans’ support for elected officials including Republican president George W. Bush surged after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks
At other times, Republicans and Democrats have been relatively even for multiple quarters. Most of these have occurred late in election years in which Republicans fared well, including the 2004 presidential election and the 2002, 2010 and 2014 midterm elections.
In other words, the Republicans do occasionally surge in popularity but they have a very difficult time sustaining their popularity.
This was a pattern that was certainly established in the mid-20th Century. After the Republicans lost control of both houses of Congress in 1932, they were only able to regain control of the House twice (1947-48, 1953-54) over the next sixty-two years, both times losing control after one dysfunctional two-year term in power. The Senate was much the same, with the only difference being a sustained run of control between 1981 and 1987. Yet, since Senate terms are for six years, the Reagan Era run can be considered as a single term, too, because the first time the Republican senators elected in 1980 had to face the voters, they were tossed out of power.
In our two-party system, the GOP developed as a non-governing opposition party. While they did well in presidential elections, people only put them in power in Congress when things got unacceptably bad in Washington. As soon as they got control, power was taken away from them again because the results were miserable.
This changed after the 1994 Gingrich Revolution which saw the GOP go on a twelve year run controlling the House and (with a brief interlude in 2001-2003) the Senate. The post-9/11 politics of the country created a bit of a wrinkle in the pattern, allowing the Republicans to carry over a little longer than they ordinarily would have. Since this is our recent history, it can obscure the clear pattern.
A trend of about eighty-five years is long enough to establish that the Republican Party doesn’t have responsible and popular legislating in its DNA. It is a protest party, and its only real utility is to act as a check on the power structure of Congress. When things get too ossified and corrupt, the GOP can come in and quickly remind people why they prefer Democrats in Congress.
What’s changed and kind of broken our politics is that the country has polarized in a way that enables the Republicans to win successive elections in the House. They are no more capable of legislating now than they were in the past. In fact, having been shut out of the legislating process for much of the last eighty-five years, they don’t believe in it.
And they just aren’t aligned right on the wheel of fortune to get a bump in the next election. They need the Democrats in control of Congress and to catch them at a low point. They need the American people in the mood to punish incumbent Democrats and that’s just not going to happen with the Republicans in control of both houses of Congress.
The Gallup data supports this conclusion, as the Democrats are on the upswing at the moment.