Doomsday for Democrats?

| January 3 2012
Christopher Cook

In the last 20 hours or so, you may have caught the Rasmussen article Number of Democrats Falls to All-Time Low, which contains some bad news for the Democrats. However, the data going back decades show that the situation may be even worse for the Democrats than yesterday’s snapshot.

First, the logline from yesterday:

The number of Republicans in the country increased by a percentage point in December, while the number of Democrats fell back two points to the lowest level ever recorded by Rasmussen Reports.

Republicans shouldn’t get too excited about the increase in Republican registrations, as a lot of those may be crossovers re-registering to vote in states that don’t have closed primaries. Both parties have generally been losing voters to independents (though the Democrats have been losing a lot more), so this uptick may mostly related to the upcoming primary.

The drop of registration of Democrats, however, should be cause for excitement among Republicans and a bit of panic among Democrats. When affiliation with your brand falls to “the lowest level ever recorded,” it may be break-the-glass-and-sound-the-alarm time.

The numbers:

During December, 35.4% of Americans considered themselves Republicans. That’s up from 34.3% in November and just below the high for the year of 35.6% reached in May.

At the same time, just 32.7% of adults said they were Democrats, down from 34.9% in November. The previous low for Democrats was 33.0% in August of this year …

Okay, so that’s not good news for the Democrats. But we took a look back in time to gain some perspective, and it turns out that the news is even worse for Democrats.

First, we looked at Rasmussen data going back to 2004. (Ranges cited for 2004 to 2008 are quarterly figures.)

In 2004, a year that Republicans did relatively well, the Democrats had registration advantages between 1.6 and 3.4%. In other words, even when Republicans did well, the Democrats were still a bit ahead on party affiliation.

In 2006, a year that Democrats did very well, their advantage was between 2.4 and 6.4%.

In 2008, another banner year for Democrats, their advantage ranged from a (quarterly) low of 6.3 to a high of a stunning 9.9%.

Fast forward to 2010. 2010 was not just a good year for Republicans, it was absolutely historic. In fact, it was the largest win in over a century, which is saying something in a country that only has a bit more than two centuries under its belt, and for a party that was only formed in 1854:

Tuesday’s GOP victory is the party’s largest win congressional elections since President Grover Cleveland’s second term more than a century ago.

With 13 races yet to be called, Republicans have gained 59 seats in the U.S. House. That surpasses the party’s 54-seat pickup in the 1994 midterm elections and the 55-seat gain in the 1946 election during President Harry Truman’s term.

So, did the Republicans have a 9.9% registration advantage in 2010? 5.5% Nope.

As late as October 2010, the eve of this historic victory, the Democrats still had a 2.9% advantage. It wasn’t until AFTER the election that the GOP went ahead in registration. (The GOP went to positive numbers—for the first time since 1994—in November, at +1.1%, and then rose to +3.3% in December, closing out the last quarter of their historic 2010 at an anemic average of +0.6%.)

In case the takeaway from those numbers isn’t crystal clear, I will put it in red text:

Even when the Republicans scored an absolutely historic sweep, the Democrats still had a registration advantage.

So what does that bode for Democrats when the GOP is actually ahead in registration?

Here are Rasmussen’s numbers for 2011:

Republican Democrat Other R – D Quarterly
2011
Dec 35.40% 32.70% 32.00% 2.70% 1.10%
Nov 34.30% 34.90% 30.80% -0.60%
Oct 34.30% 33.10% 32.60% 1.20%
Sep 33.90% 33.70% 32.40% 0.20% -0.30%
Aug 33.50% 33.00% 33.50% 0.50%
July 33.10% 34.80% 32.10% -1.70%
Jun 34.40% 34.70% 31.00% -0.30% 0.90%
May 35.60% 34.00% 30.40% 1.60%
Apr 34.80% 33.50% 31.70% 1.30%
Mar 34.00% 35.30% 30.70% -1.30% 0.00%
Feb 35.10% 34.30% 30.60% 0.80%
Jan 35.40% 35.00% 29.60% 0.40%

 

As you can see, the GOP ends 2011 with a registration advantage. Again, some of that is crossover, but if you dig into the data, you can see that the the Democrats are losing a great deal more than the Republicans. Most are going independent, and that remains a wild card in the upcoming election, but this cannot be seen as a positive development for the Democrats.

It is also interesting to note that Rasmussen’s “other” category may soon become larger than the Democrats. It happened briefly in August, and it may again if trends continue.

It gets worse for Democrats. Here are Pew data from 1990 to 2003:

 

 

Other than a spike around the 1994 elections (another historic year for the GOP), the Democrats have maintained an advantage. In 2002, where the GOP gained seats in the midterms, the Democrats were still ahead by a little. (Even that was a historic year for the GOP, as the president’s party almost never gains seats in the midterm election of his first term.)

So, the GOP is slightly ahead in registration now, for the first time since 1994. What if we go further back?

Thanks to Pew, that’s just another chart away:

 

The Democrats have had a clear registration advantage for a long, long time. As you can see from recent data, there are historic changes underway in party affiliation. Obviously the growth of independents is one of the biggest stories. Republican affiliation has also been on the rise lately. And Democrats, for their part, have ceased to be dominant in affiliation advantage.

What’s more foreboding for Democrats is that their brand, which recovered some of its historic advantage in 2008, appears to be in real trouble again.

If you look at the chart above, you’ll see a peak right around Watergate, followed by a precipitous plummet during the Carter malaise. If you look at the data here again, you’ll see that the Obama phenomenon (as it is fairly described) did manage to bring the Democrats back up into the low 40s for a short time. While this is still ten points lower than their post-Watergate high, it was still a peak. Since that point, we have seen another fairly steep drop in Democrat affiliation. In fact, it is the steepest drop since the Carter years.

Democrats might argue that both Carter and Obama were saddled with difficult economic circumstances and their party took the blame. Republicans might counter that the common factor in each drop was a Democrat president far to the left of the American mainstream.

Either way, however, one thing is clear: The GOP has almost never exceeded the Democrats in party affiliation, going back to at least the 1930s. Even when the GOP wins historic victories, the Democrats are slightly ahead or the GOP takes a brief lead only.

Going into 2012,

  • with their decades-long historic advantages completely gone,
  • looking at a precipitous decline in registration since their 2008 high,
  • and now, with a GOP registration advantage,
  • and possibly about to be surpassed in registration by independents as well,

. . . the Democrats have to be at least concerned. I know I would be.

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