For much of 2017, President Trump’s poll numbers have been pretty consistent. In its most recent weekly average, Gallup has Trump at 36 percent approval — within two points of where he has been since July. Trump is where he is because, although Democrats hate him and independents generally view him negatively, he continues to enjoy high approval ratings from Republicans. Eighty-two percent of those in his own party approve of Trump, as of last week. That’s pretty good, but not good enough to keep Trump’s overall approval from being historically low for a modern president.
The problem for Trump may not just be that only Republicans like him, but that there are fewer Republicans than there were a year ago.
Last week, Gallup reported that the gap in partisan identity between Republicans and Democrats was 7 points — narrower than during the summer but still wider than it was at this point last year. In other words, the percentage of Americans who say that they are Democrats, or independents who tend to vote Democratic, is 7 percentage points higher than the percentage who identify as Republican or Republican-leaning.
“Democrats’ edge has expanded this year mainly because of a decline in Republican affiliation,” Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones wrote. “A year ago, 44% of Americans identified as Democrats or leaned Democratic, the same percentage as now. However, Republican identification and leaning is five points lower than it was a year ago.”
NBC’s Dante Chinni got a more detailed breakdown of the shift. Women are 5 points less likely to identify as Republicans relative to last November. White women are 7 points less likely to.
This raises the question of why Americans were giving up on the party. Was it a function of the president?
Gallup found slips in Trump’s approval across the board since his inauguration, but polling from Marist conducted last December and in November of this year seems to reinforce the idea that some Republicans soured on Trump specifically. Asked whether they view Trump favorably — a different metric than approval — Trump’s numbers have dropped six percentage points over that 11-month period. Most of that drop was among those who identify as “independent” or “soft Republican,” which Marist defines as “registered voters who identify as ‘not strong Republicans’ or Republican-leaning independents.”
In other words, in November of this year, there were far more independents and “soft Republicans,” which includes some independents, who said that they viewed Trump favorably. If Republicans soured on Trump and bailed on the party, that might be what you’d expect to see as the pools of independents saw an influx of new, anti-Trump independents.
There’s an important point to add, though. What happened to the Republicans in 2017 was actually less severe than what happened to the Democrats in 2009, after the election of Barack Obama. Here’s Gallup’s long-term trend on the question of party.
In November 2008, 53 percent of Americans identified as Democratic and 34 percent identified as Republican — a 19-point spread. By November of the next year, though, the spread was 44 percent Democratic and 40 percent Republican, a gap of only 4 points. The Democrats gained 5 points in 2017. In 2009, the Republicans gained 15. (After the 2012 election, there was no big shift.)
You’ll notice that the Democrats have fairly consistently had an advantage in terms of party identification. Republicans are more reliable voters, generally speaking, since voting propensity correlates to age and income, which both also correlate to Republican Party membership.
In 2010, 2014 and 2016, the partisan identification between the parties was much closer than during 2008 or now, and Republicans benefited at the polls. That, if anything, is the moral of this particular story: If partisan identification shows a wide advantage for the Democrats in November of 2018, that suggests that the party could see an advantage in the polls.
If Republican leaders think Trump is to blame for that shift, deservedly or not, Washington politics could get very interesting very quickly.