Last week's NBC-Wall Street Journal poll demonstrating both the personal appeal to the American people of President Barack Obama and of his policy approach also has very good news for the Democratic Party. That survey and others suggest that the Democratic Party has strength that is deeper, antedates, and will likely extend beyond the Obama presidency. The NBC survey indicates that about half of the public (49%) has a favorable opinion of the Democrats, while only about half that number is positive about the Republicans (26%). The most recent Daily Kos tracking survey paints an even rosier picture for the Democrats. In that poll, while 58-percent are positive about the Democratic Party, only 32-percent feel that way about the Republicans, numbers that have improved for the Democrats and declined for the Republicans since the first of the year.
Positive feelings toward the Democratic Party and negative impressions of the GOP are deeper than these overall attitudes suggest. For example, the Republicans are given the primary blame for the partisan rancor that has characterized Washington politics in recent years. A majority (56%) attribute "all" or a "major part" of the blame for that to the Bush administration and 41-percent blame congressional Republicans. By contrast, only a quarter (24%) say partisanship is the fault of congressional Democrats and a scant 11-percent attributes it to President Obama. As a result, a clear majority (56%) believes that GOP opposition to Obama administration policies comes from an effort to gain political advantage rather than principle (30%). All of this goes a long way toward explaining why, by a greater than 2:1 margin on the biggest issue of the day, Americans believe that the Democrats rather than the Republicans will do a better job of ending the recession (48% vs. 20%).
To an extent attitudes like these may change with the emergence and departure of specific issues and politicians. But, surveys indicate that the American public has formed what is likely to be a long-term attachment to the Democratic Party. The Pew Research Center's tracking of party identification gave the GOP a narrow national lead over the Democrats in party ID in 1995, the year after the Republicans captured control of both houses of Congress for the first time in about four decades (46% vs. 43%). The Democratic Party's comeback in began in earnest in 2006 as it recaptured Congress and moved to a nine-percentage point party identification advantage over the Republicans (47% vs. 38%). Currently, the Democrats have a 53% to 37% edge.
What is behind the clear emergence of the Democratic Party as America's majority political party is the coming-of-age of a new generation of young Americans, the Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003). Like their GI Generation ("Greatest Generation") great grandparents before them, the Millennials are a "civic" generation, committed to liberal interventionism in the economy, activist multilateralism in foreign affairs, tolerant non-meddling on social issues, and to the Democratic Party.
Millennials identify as Democrats by a greater than 2:1 margin and are the first American generation in at least four to contain a greater number of self-perceived liberals rather than conservatives. Survey data collected by both Pew and media research and consultation firm, Frank N. Magid Associates, indicates that these identifications predated the 2008 presidential campaign or even the emergence of Barack Obama as a well-known national political figure. But Millennials did flex their political muscles in a big way in 2008, voting overwhelmingly for both Barack Obama over John McCain (68% vs. 32%) and Democratic over GOP congressional candidates (63% vs. 34%). Millennials accounted for 80-percent of Obama's national popular vote lead, turning a narrow victory into a mandate.
There is nothing to suggest that the firm attachment of the Millennial Generation to Barack Obama and the Democratic Party is in any way diminishing. The Kos survey indicates that an astounding and virtually unanimous 86-percent of Millennials now hold favorable opinions of President Obama. While Obama may personalize the political beliefs and Democratic identifications of the Millennial Generation, he is also likely to help extend them as surely as FDR aided in extending those of the GI Generation in the 1930s and 1940s. More than two-thirds of Millennials (68%) have favorable impressions of the Democratic Party and a majority is positive about congressional Democrats (53%). Meanwhile, Millennials have almost nothing good to say about the GOP: just 19-percent like the Republican Party and virtually none (9%) are positive about congressional Republicans. Voting behavior research since the 1950s indicates that once attitudes and identifications like these are formed, they tend to be set for life and rarely change. Clearly the road ahead for the Republican Party is hard and rocky.
But, as the GOP brand continues to erode, the Republicans are treating the country to a spat between its titular head, Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele, and the man some consider the party's de facto leader, radio talk show host, Rush Limbaugh. After Steele criticized him for being an "entertainer" with an "incendiary" and "ugly" show, Limbaugh distanced himself from the Republican National Committee, if not from the Republican Party, saying to Steele that, "You are not the head of the Republican Party. Tens of millions of conservatives and Republicans have nothing to do with the Republican National Committee."
On the day after the 1994 GOP midterm election sweep, this writer could not resist the masochistic urge of turning his car radio dial to Limbaugh's show and hearing Limbaugh's audience of "dittoheads" extol him for his leadership of the Republican victory. On that day, Limbaugh was more than happy to accept the plaudits of his listeners and proud to wear the mantle of Republican leadership. He did not separate himself from any part of the GOP. The fact that he has done so now provides clear evidence that American politics has, indeed, entered a new era.
Mike Hais is a Fellow at NDN and the New Policy Institute and, with Morley Winograd, is the co-author of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, You Tube, and the Future of American Politics (Rutgers University Press, 2008), named one of the 10 favorite books by the New York Times in 2008.