Even if we are unable to deprogram MAGA members, it looks as though the GOP is shrinking, making its aspirations to regain power more difficult. Gallup reports that during the first quarter of 2021 “an average of 49% of U.S. adults identified with the Democratic Party or said they are independents who lean toward the Democratic Party. That compares with 40% who identified as Republicans or Republican leaners.” That nine-point gap dwarfs the usual four- to six-point Democratic advantage. It has not been this big since the fourth quarter of 2012.
Breaking down those totals, 30 percent identify as Democrats (19 percent lean Democratic), while only 25 percent identify as Republicans (and 15 percent lean Republican). The percentage of those who do not identify with one of the two parties (leaners plus independents with no partisan preference) is up. But Gallup reports that “[i]ncreased independent identification has mostly come at the expense of the Republican Party, with the 25% of U.S. adults currently identifying as Republicans down from 29% in the fourth quarter. Republican Party identification has not been lower since early 2018 and is just a few points above the low of 22% in the Gallup telephone polling era.”
The data contain a number of important implications for the media, the administration and both parties. First, when we hear 60 percent of Republicans believe something insane (e.g., that the election was stolen or that antifa was responsible for the Jan. 6 insurrection), understand that we are talking about a smaller universe of people. The hard-core crazies are still crazy, but others have moved on, making the GOP weaker.
Second, Republicans’ pandering to the MAGA base becomes politically untenable when there are fewer of them. The notion that Republicans can win by turning out this base in large numbers while turning off everyone else in the process does not make sense if the GOP percentage of the electorate shrinks. The math just does not work.
Third, the Biden administration and Democrats more generally cannot worry about “further” alienating or enraging irrational MAGA voters, but they can secure their hold on a governing majority, opening their arms to disaffected Republicans and independents while keep their own base fully engaged. Smart Democrats in the administration and among consultants/pollsters grasp how important it is to deliver for that cross-section of the electorate.
Politico quotes Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster and an adviser for Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign, on this point: “This is a real opportunity to redefine what our economic profile is going to be like — with an aspect of the building part and the caring part — and really could be definitional for our party for the next 50 years.” This should include ending the dual crises of the pandemic and the recession; passing overwhelmingly popular legislation on infrastructure; cementing Democrats’ inroads in the suburbs, where a caring economy appeals to two-income households; and showing that competent, clean government can deliver. Proving that democracy can address people’s real-world concerns is essential to fending off illiberal, authoritarian attacks from those who deride democracy as dysfunctional.
Finally, House and Senate Republicans continue to oppose Biden’s uber-popular initiatives, engage in silly cultural memes, obsess over the amorphous cancel culture (even as they “cancel” Major League Baseball for taking its All-Star Game to Denver) and perpetuate the Big Lie that the election was stolen. They are leaders of a smaller army, acting as if they can survive with only the MAGA base on their side. This is a winning formula only if they can suppress the vote of non-MAGA voters. Hence, we see the frenzy to shrink the electorate to match the shrunken GOP ranks.
Biden seems ideally suited for a moment when the public embraces more government and a larger percentage of voters are fleeing the MAGA-saturated GOP. So long as he can deliver — a big question mark — and quiet the culture wars, he can set the foundation for a broad coalition that ranges all the way from the center-right to the progressive left.