Handicapping the 2014 Election

The Gallup Organization's recent report (1/8/13) indicated that 42% of the American public identified themselves as Independents, 31% said they were Democrats, and 25% claimed to be Republicans. The report was based on 13 multiple-day polls conducted during 2013.

The report's headline was "Record-High 42% of Americans Identify as Independents." Its subtitle was "Republican identification lowest in at least 25 years."

Rick Moran commented on Gallup's report in a blog on the American Thinker the same day. Near the end he noted a "worrisome trend," namely the growing tendency of self-identified Independents to say they lean to the Democrats, and the decreased proclivity for people who initially reported they are Independents but admitted they leaned to the GOP. Moran correctly observed that Independents generally have low rates of voting in off-year elections, so the new trend "probably won't hurt the GOP very much next November."

Rick Moran is a perceptive observer of the American political scene, and there is historical and contemporary evidence to buttress his conclusion that, despite its low standing among the public right now, there is good reason for optimism about the party's prospects in 2014.

First, some history. Moran quotes Gallup's report which observes that in 1983, before the organization switched from in-person, face-to-face interviewing to conducting interviews via the telephone, Republican identification had been just as low as the pooled 2013 polls found. Gallup attributed 1983's low level of identification with the GOP (24%) to the poor state of the U.S. economy -- unemployment was around 10% -- which also saw Ronald Reagan receive the lowest level of public approval of his presidency -- 35% in late January.

Yet, as Gallup notes "'[b]y the following year, amid an improving economy and re-election for the increasingly popular president [-- whose approval rating reached 58% just before he won a 49-state landslide --] Republican identification jumped to 30%, a level generally maintained until 2007.'"

History teaches, in short, not to assume that today's poll results provide ironclad guidelines to tomorrow's figures. A poll is akin to a photographic snapshot, freezing its subject to what it appears like at a specific time. (I have a picture of me taken in 1961; I don't look like that today, darn it.) If things change, even just time's passing, photographs (and poll results) change.

Photos of the same person, of course, even when taken 50+ years apart, reveal some constancy, however vague, and specialists who interpret pictures taken even decades apart can usually find tell-tale facets of the human anatomy which they use to determine whether photo A, taken of a person, say 50 years ago, is of the same individual as photo B, taken the day before yesterday.

Sadly, students of polls taken even over fairly short intervals don't have the same luxury.

This observation reinforces the assertion that it's risky to make too much of polls taken months before the up-coming off-year elections.

There is also the well-known tendency for Republicans to turn out to vote at higher rates than Democrats. The partisan disparity in turnout is especially pronounced in off-year elections. A report released by the Pew Research Center in late October, 2010 illustrates the point. In September of 2010, Pew asked a random sample of adults whether or not they planned to vote in the upcoming off-year elections. Only 30% of people who said they were Republicans or leaned toward the GOP reported they wouldn't vote in 2010. On the other hand, 54% of those who said they were Democrats or leaned to the Democrats told Pew's interviewers that they would abstain from the polls.

Given poll respondents' proclivity to over-report their likelihood of voting, the percentages above probably overestimate actual turnout rates. Since research has found that Republicans are no more likely to over-report their likelihood of voting than are Democrats, the generalization about partisanship and turnout in off-year elections holds up.

One more historical fact should caution against making too much of polls about party identification taken well in advance of the voting.

In 2010, the midterm elections that saw the Republicans devastate the Democrats, not just the 63-seat change in the U.S. House of Representatives, but in state legislative elections that saw more than 700 seats won by the GOP, "only" 29% of the nation's population identified themselves as Republicans, compared to 31% with Democrats, and 38% as Independents.

If 2010 is any guide, one shouldn't generalize from the relative percentages of the major parties' grassroots popularity to how they might do at the polls in an off-year election. This is especially the case in elections when there may be a strong tide running against candidates of a party weighted down by unpopular policies and/or scandals.

Right now, at least, Democrat candidates labor under the handicap that is ObamaCare. A myriad of other scandals attached to the Obama Administration -- from "Operation Fast and Furious" to "IRSgate" to Benghazi and its aftermath, etc. -- also militate against Democrats.

Expect the Democrats to go all out to "change the subject" before November. The mainstream media (MSM) will do all in their power to help Democrats and especially the Obamians. (Witness the MSM's feeding frenzy over Chris Christie and "Bridgegate.")

Then there's always the Republicans' proclivity for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The GOP's internecine war pitting country clubbers against the party's conservative base is bound to hurt.

(Too many Republicans seem to forget that the MSM will trumpet any division within the GOP, while remaining mute about Democrats' infighting.)

Nevertheless, contemporary evidence also undermines a pessimistic view of Republican prospects for 2014. Two recent polls conducted for the Pew Research Center, for example, put the GOP's likely prospects next November in a positive light.

Late last year, Pew asked respondents "how enthusiastic are you about voting in midterms?" Pew had asked the same question in November, 2009. At that time and again last December, Republican identifiers and leaners were more enthusiastic than Democrat identifiers and leaners.

Pew also asked if registered voters expected their party to do better in the next election than recently. The same query had been asked in December, 2005 and June, 2010. In late 2005 a much larger percentage of Democrats expected improved party fortunes come 2006 (64% vs. 16%). In June, 2010 and December 2013, however, Republicans were more likely to think their party would/will do better than recently (72% vs. 29% in 2010; 55% vs. 43% in 2013).

Pew's second poll, conducted just after the first of January, 2014, asked respondents if they were looking forward to the upcoming midterm elections. Pew had asked the same question in early January, 2010. In both years, larger percentages of Republicans than of Democrats reported anticipating the midterm voting (60% vs. 48% in 2010; 63% vs. 53% in 2014).

To reiterate, Moran is right. No matter what occurs in 2014, Republicans have to improve the party's standing with Americans. The midterms will probably see the Republicans win, but the GOP has to garner more public backing over the long run.

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