Democrats’ party affiliation edge: Does it matter?

at 01:00 PM ET, 06/09/2011

In new Gallup data released Thursday morning, Democrats have opened up a six-point edge over Republicans when people are asked with which party they more closely affiliate themselves.

Forty five percent identified themselves as Democrats while 39 percent called themselves Republicans in the month of May. That amounts to the largest lead for Democrats in Gallup data since October 2009.

The numbers stand in stark contrast to the recent spate of dismal economic news — and polling — for President Obama and his party.

So, is the margin meaningful as it relates to the current political landscape? Or is is a statistical insignificance to be dismissed?

Like most things in politics, the answer to that question depends on which partisan hat you wear.

Geoff Garin, a prominent Democratic pollster and partner in Garin-Hart-Yang Research, argued that the Gallup data affirms other surveys he has seen of late in identifying some movement toward Democrats.

“I have definitely noticed a change in our own polling, particularly on the leanings of independents when you push them to one party or the other,” said Garin.

He added that the movement among independents was attributable to the fact that “congressional Republicans have misread their mandate and overplayed their hand.”

Not so, according to Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster with Public Opinion Strategies.

Bolger noted that the recent movement in the Gallup data isn’t statistically significant, adding that the average party identification from January through now is 44.4 percent for Democrats and 40 percent for Republicans — perfectly in line with the May findings.

Bolger also argued that because the data is from May, it’s likely a lagging indicator of the current state of political affairs. May was, by most accounts, a very positive month for the President politically — highlighted by his announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed on May 2.

Added Gallup pollster Jeffrey Jones in a memo detailing the results: “The recent increase in the Democrats’ advantage in party affiliation coincides with Americans’ more positive evaluations of President Obama, who averaged 50 percent job approval in May compared with 44 percent in April.”

(The party affiliation numbers generally track with presidential approval/disapproval; in the runup to the 2006 and 2008 elections, distaste — particularly among independents — toward President Bush gave Democrats’ historic leads on the ID question. The party made major across-the-board gains in both elections.)

June, of course, has been far less friendly for Obama, most notably with the release last Friday of a decidedly weak jobs report that showed the unemployment rate ticking up to 9.1 percent.

And, in more recent polling from the Washington Post/ABC News, which came out of the field earlier this month, there was little evidence of a Democratic uptick in party identification.

In that survey, 31 percent called themselves Democrats while 25 percent said they were Republicans and 39 percent identified as independents; those numbers were not much changed from an April Post/ABC poll that showed 32%D/22%R/42%I.

The differing viewpoints among partisans suggests that drawing broad-scale conclusions from the Gallup poll is likely short-sighted in the absence of several other data points.

May was clearly a good month for Democrats — between bin Laden’s death strengthening Obama’s commander-in-chief credentials to the struggles of congressional Republicans to effectively settle on a message about their plans for Medicare.

June has been less auspicious for the party, however, as the grim economic numbers and New York Rep. Anthony Weiner’s problems have dominated the news.

 
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