Democrats have reestablished a lead in party affiliation over Republicans for the first time since 2009. According to a Gallup poll released Wednesday, 47 percent of Americans identified as Democrats or independent voters who leaned Democratic in 2012, compared with 42 percent who identified as or leaned Republican.
According to Gallup, the two parties were virtually tied in 2010 and 2011. Democrats had an edge through much of the 1990s, when the economy boomed during Democrat Bill Clinton's presidency, and again during the mid-2000s, when the economy tanked and Republican President George W. Bush's approval ratings dropped.
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Democrats also held a particularly significant advantage over Republicans in 2008, the year President Barack Obama was elected. The one and only time Republicans have had a significant lead since Gallup began measuring party identification was in 1991 when President George H. W. Bush's approval ratings skyrocketed following the Persian Gulf War.
While the number of people who identify outright as Democrats has remained unchanged, at 31 percent, from 2011 to 2012, the number who lean Democratic has risen from 14 percent to 16 percent. And the number of people who identify has gone up by only one percentage point during that time, from 27 to 28 percent, while the percentage of people who say they lean Republican has dropped significantly, by four percentage points, from 18 percent to 14 percent.
The 40 percent of independent voters in 2012 matches the record high from 2011. As Gallup notes, that is significant because the number of independents typically declines in a presidential election year.
As it is, those votes are critical. While candidates generally accept that they are not going to win the votes of people who identify openly with the other party, independent voters are seen as votes to be courted.
Votes from minority groups have also become increasingly important. President Obama won the overwhelming majority – more than 70 percent – of the Latino vote in 2012. And according to a post-election survey by conservative pollsters, Latino voters don't think the Republican Party respects them, which makes convincing Hispanic voters that the GOP is the best choice difficult.
Those who identify as Republican are disproportionately white. With the number of minority voters growing, especially the number of Latino voters, the pool of white voters is shrinking. To gain a sizeable lead in affiliation over Democrats, Republicans need to attract more minorities, specifically Latinos. The Republican Party has acknowledged that it needs to do a much better job at reaching out to minority voters, but that's not going to fix the problem. Latinos identify more with Democrats on a variety of issues beyond immigration reform, from healthcare to gay marriage, meaning the Republicans have a party platform issue when it comes to Latino voters, too.