In Washington perception is often reality and, based on the reported results of two new surveys, one by the New York Times and CBS and the other by the Wall Street Journal and NBC, the perception du jour in DC is that President Barack Obama has lost ground because of public concern with government spending, the deficit, and, perhaps most of all, the General Motors "bailout." The New York Times story on its survey is even headlined, "In poll, Obama is seen as ineffective on the economy.
But a look beneath the headlines to the survey data itself indicates that New York Times writers, or at least their headline writer, may have misread their own poll results. Instead of condemning of the president's handling of the economy, in the New York Times/CBS survey, the public actually approves of it by a greater than twenty-percentage point margin (57% vs. 35%), statistically unchanged since the first weeks of the administration. In the aftermath of the president's recent trip to the Middle East and Europe, his marks in foreign policy have actually risen since May. And, even in health care reform, a work in progress and a relative soft spot for Obama, voters approve of his performance by 44-percent to 34-percent.
As a result, Obama's overall job approval rating is unchanged over the past month, down slightly since April, and even up marginally since February and March. To the extent that the president's performance rating has fallen, the drop has been almost totally concentrated among Republicans.
What may contribute to the expectation that Obama is standing on shaky ground, or soon will be, is another incorrect inside-the-beltway perception, this one primarily advanced by Republican commentators since the president's election, that America is "conservative," "center right" or at least "centrist." More often than not these pronouncements stem from narrowly focused interpretations of surveys suggesting that the number of "independents" in the electorate is growing and that self-perceived independents represent some amorphous, undifferentiated group of "centrists" who are decisive in U.S. politics.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The large majority (about 80%) of those who tell pollsters they are independents actually "lean" to one or the other of the two parties. Those who lean to the Democrats differ demographically and, even more importantly, behaviorally and attitudinally from those who lean to the GOP. As a result, the electorate is far more partisan than superficial analyses of survey results might suggest. Currently, the Democrats hold a substantial and growing edge over the Republicans among independents who lean toward a party. About six in ten "leaners" now tilt to the Democrats. Coupled with their large lead among those who do identify with a party, the Democrats are clearly operating as the country's decisive majority party.
John P. Avlon, who served on the policy and speech writing teams of Rudy Giuliani's abbreviated 2008 presidential campaign, is only the most recent of those professing the importance of centrist independents. Citing Pew Research Center data, Avlon claimed in an early June Wall Street Journal article that the number of self-identified independents in the electorate has risen sharply since Obama's win last November while the percentage of both Democrats and Republicans has fallen. Because of these post-election shifts, according to Avlon, "independents hold the balance of power in the Obama era."
On the surface, Avlon's description of the Pew data may be accurate. But his characterization of party identification data is shallow and incomplete. Avlon, like most of those who write about the distribution of party identifiers within the US electorate, refers to only three discrete and presumably undifferentiated categories of voters--Republicans, Democrats, and independents.
However, voting behavior analysts affiliated with the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, who first formulated the concept of party identification in the 1950s, recognized early on that those who identify with a particular political party do so with varying degrees of strength, while those who say they are independents may lean toward one or the other of the parties. As a result, the Michigan researchers developed a seven-point scale to more fully capture the actual complexity of party identification. This scale consists of Strong Democrats on one extreme and Strong Republicans on the other. In between the two extremes are Weak Democrats, Independents who lean to the Democrats, Independents who lean to the Republicans and Weak Republicans. In the very center of the scale are Independents who do not lean to either party.
All of this might only be of academic interest were it not for the crucial importance of party identification. Party identification represents a psychological attachment of voters to a political party. While it certainly is not a contractual obligation to support a party, the large majority of Americans vote for the party with which they identify or to which they lean--and they almost always adhere to its positions on issues as well . Political scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that party identification is the single most important factor shaping the choices of individual voters. In the aggregate, these numbers really do matter. The distribution of party identifiers and leaners is the clearest indicator of the relative strength of the two parties within the U.S. electorate and has now tilted heavily toward the Democrats.
Utilizing the more complete and useful seven-point scale rather than a three-point division paints a far different picture of American voters than the one that Avlon and most of those who report on trends in party identification paint. Based on April 2009 data that is the most recent cited by Pew, here is the overall distribution of party identifiers in the U.S.:
Democratic Leaning Independents
Republican Leaning Independents
* Table does not total 100% due to rounding
This table makes several points very clear. First, the Democrats are clearly the majority party holding a decisive twenty-percentage point party ID lead over the Republicans (54% to 34%). Second, barely one in ten voters is a non-leaning independent; rather than being the decisive center, non-committed voters actually comprise a small minority of the electorate.
The following table, also using Pew tracking data, displays the distribution of party identification for all election years from 1990 through 2006 and for every year since then.
Overall Democratic Advantage
These results lead to a number of clear and important conclusions about the distribution of party identification across the American electorate during the past two decades.
* The Democrats have generally held the edge throughout the entire period. But, that advantage was relatively small during the 1990s and the first three election years of this century. The Democratic margin widened a bit in the two years when Bill Clinton won the presidency (1992 and 1996) and 1998, when some voters may have turned against the GOP in reaction to a politically motivated impeachment effort. By contrast, the Republicans reached parity with the Democrats in 1994, the year of the Gingrich revolution that saw the GOP gain control of Congress, and 2002, when the nation rallied to a Republican president in the aftermath of 9/11.
* The Democratic advantage has sharply and consistently widened since the 2006 midterm elections when that party regained control of Congress. A number of factors--the disastrous George W. Bush presidency, an increasingly diverse electorate, the emergence of the Millennial Generation (young Americans born 1982-2003), the election and continued appeal of Barack Obama--have all undoubtedly contributed to the Democrats' increased party identification lead. Regardless of the relative importance of these and other factors, a greater percentage of American voters now identifies as Democrats or leans Democratic than at any time since Lyndon Johnson's landslide 1964 victory over Barry Goldwater. The Democratic margin over the GOP is larger than at any time since the post-Watergate period of the mid-1970s.
* The number of completely non-affiliated voters has slightly, but consistently, declined each year since 2006. Rather than becoming more crucial, as writers such as Avlon suggest, unattached independents have actually become less important during past several years.
All of this leaves President Obama and congressional Democrats in strong position as they prepare for the major battles ahead on health care reform and energy--if they have the courage to avoid giving in to incorrect Washington perceptions and, instead, take advantage of the rare opportunity that the American electorate has given them.