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Opinion Are Republicans becoming the country’s majority party?

The Republican Party elephant symbol sits on display during the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., in February 2020. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)
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Are Republicans becoming the country’s majority party? Tantalizing new polling data from Gallup suggest they might. It could just be a blip, or it could be an early sign of an upheaval that would transform American politics.

The Democratic Party has held a near-constant lead in partisan affiliation surveys since the end of the Great Depression. That advantage was once huge; Democrats outnumbered Republicans by between 15 and 26 points every year between 1958 and 1980. The lead has narrowed to no more than 10 points in recent years, but the fact remains that Republicans have drawn level with Democrats or surpassed them only a few times since 1932.

That’s what makes the Gallup data so potentially Earth-shattering. Gallup found that partisan identification has shifted by a massive 14 points since early 2021. In the first quarter of 2021, 49 percent of Americans said they were Democrats — defined as solid partisans and Democratic-leaning independents — compared with only 40 percent who said they were Republicans. That lead shrunk in each quarter of the year. By the fourth quarter, the lead shifted to the GOP. As President Biden’s job approval dropped into the low 40s, 47 percent of Americans said they were Republicans compared with 42 percent who said they were Democrats.

Gallup notes that the most recent time the GOP led in partisan affiliation by five points was in the first quarter of 1995, right after Republicans secured their first House majority in more than 40 years. The only time the GOP has led by more than five points was right after the stunningly quick victory in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when President George H.W. Bush’s approval ratings soared to as high as 89 percent.

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The Gallup poll is only one poll, so Republicans should curb their enthusiasm. But after examining it together with Pew Research Center data, I think it’s worth noting that these numbers echo previous increases in GOP affiliation. The Democratic Party lost its lead only four times. Two instances followed a successful war in the Middle East led by a Republican president (1991, 2001-2003). The other two occurred because of the collapse a Democratic president’s popularity when his party completely controlled Washington — under Bill Clinton in 1994-1995 and Barack Obama in 2010-2011.

Biden’s job approval rating is now lower than Obama’s in November 2010 and roughly equivalent to Clinton’s in November 1994. It stands to reason that Democratic support would collapse as support for their president collapses, too.

This gives the GOP a golden opportunity to do what its predecessors didn’t: Translate a temporary gain in popularity into a lasting partisan realignment. The party cannot control what Democrats do; if Biden pivots to the center, as Clinton famously did after his 1994 shellacking, that presumably could help reverse his party’s declining fortunes. But Republicans can avoid the same unforced errors that helped scare away voters.

In both 1995 and 2011, Republican leaders in the House immediately pushed for dramatic spending cuts to balance the budget. In 1995, House Speaker Newt Gingrich proposed cutting Medicare spending by as much as 14 percent. He even floated the idea of entirely scrapping Medicare and replacing it with a market-based system. Clinton, who surely could not believe his good luck, quickly shifted to being the defender of “Medicare, Medicaid, environment and education” and vetoed GOP appropriations that tried to implement their plans. The two sides even shut down the government for nearly a month over this dispute. The public sided with Clinton, with Democrats regaining their partisan advantage and the president’s job approval ratings rising to as high as 60 percent as he swept to an easy reelection.

House Budget Committee Chair Paul D. Ryan similarly pushed for draconian cuts after his party took power in 2011. Gingrich, having learned his lesson, argued against this, but Ryan persisted. His selection as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee in 2012 allowed Obama to tar the entire party with his proposals. The result: Obama cruised to victory, and the GOP even lost seats in the Senate when they had expected to regain control.

The message is crystal clear: If Republicans want to become the majority party, they have to stop crusading against the entitlement state that helps so many Americans live with dignity and security. This is particularly true as the party’s demographic base shifts even more heavily toward working-class voters who rely more on these programs in their retirement than do the wealthier classes that used to be the GOP’s bedrock. If Republicans really want to be a multiethnic, multiracial, working-class party, they need to recognize and embrace the crucial role that entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security play in those voters’ lives.

Biden’s ultra-liberal ineptitude is giving Republicans another chance to prove they understand the real American dream. If they finally listen to what voters are telling them, 2022 and 2024 could bring about the most decisive realignment since the Great Depression.

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