The Gallup organization reported its latest findings on party identification late last week, and the report contained good news for the Democrats and a flashing yellow for Republicans.
The Democrats “have regained an advantage” over the GOP in party affiliation, Gallup’s Jeffrey M. Jones wrote in an accompanying analysis. Republicans, he added, “have seemingly lost the momentum they had going into last fall’s elections.”
The current numbers don’t mean Republicans can’t win the White House in 2016. The Democrats’ advantage is not as large as at other points in the past, for example. But the findings add to a series of data points that underscore the challenges ahead for a party trying to keep pace with a rapidly changing country.
The latest numbers essentially mark a reset that returns party affiliation to its modern historical norm. Democrats long have enjoyed the advantage over Republicans in Gallup’s measures.
In those few periods when the GOP drew even or slightly ahead (after Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 or after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001), the party has been unable to hold that ground for long.
These have obviously been good weeks for President Obama and the Democrats. The Supreme Court’s decisions rejecting another legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act and ruling that same-sex marriage is now legal around the country gave the Obama administration two significant victories that were at odds with Republican doctrine.
Obama’s eulogy at the memorial service for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine people slain last month after Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., was further evidence of a president determined to leverage the powers of his office to advance an agenda at odds with the policies and positions of the GOP.
Republicans in Congress have blocked his path to legislative success on many of Obama’s pet issues: gun control, minimum wage, immigration reform and climate change among them. But the president’s sharpened rhetoric on these and other issues signaled a renewal of the quadrennial battle for public opinion and electoral support.
Obama has repeated his attacks on the GOP as a party out of touch with the country, as a party of the past during a time of historic change. Hillary Rodham Clinton is echoing that same message about the Republicans as she campaigns for the Democratic nomination.
Democratic Party affiliation no doubt has benefited by a modest rise in Obama’s approval ratings, which were weak through most of 2014 and have recovered somewhat this spring and summer. The stronger Obama’s approval ratings next year, the more likely it is that the Democrats will retain the White House for a third consecutive term.
This isn’t the first time Obama has enjoyed a confluence of good events and renewed energy, only to see it slip away. Such ebbs and flows have marked his presidency from the start and could pull him down from the high moment he is enjoying.
Clinton is widely popular among Democrats of all ideological stripes, even as she faces a challenge from the left for the nomination from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Still, she carries substantial baggage that could affect her prospects in a general election, if she is the party’s nominee.
Republicans must hope that they nominate a presidential candidate who the public sees as sharing its values and who embodies the future direction of the country. For now, however, the contest for the nomination offers potholes and pitfalls.
“Although Obama and the Republican majority in Congress remain a major focus of the political news coverage, attention is increasingly turning to the 2016 presidential campaign,” Jones’s analysis notes. “Here Democrats may be benefiting from having a well-known and relatively popular front-running candidate in Hillary Clinton, which paints a contrast to the large, fractured and generally less well-known field of Republican presidential candidates.”
The Republican field on paper is substantially better than it was four years ago. But at present, no one is capturing the interest or imagination of the voters.
The best known among the group is former Florida governor Jeb Bush. But his family name and resistance hobble him to another Bush presidency.
The other Republicans have barely registered, even among party faithful. Every one of the candidates has a personal story he or she thinks will turn him or her into a more compelling figure, but few voters are listening at this point. The seeming strength of the field has yet to return dividends to the party as a whole.
Nor have the candidates begun to engage one another. When they do, the party will be plunged into a debate about the future — of health care, of the environment, of same-sex marriage, of the economy. On some of these issues, the divisions risk playing into Obama’s and Clinton’s characterization of the Republicans being caught in the past.
Obamacare animates the Republican base but is a call for repeal a winning issue?
On same-sex marriage, should Republicans stand for a constitutional amendment to give states the power to decide the definition of marriage, as some GOP candidates advocate, or try to take the issue off the agenda?
On climate change, the challenge appears to be finding the right language and the right balance on policy. How will the candidates divide on this issue?
The Republicans running for president have choices to make as they attempt to position themselves and their party as being in touch with the aspirations of a majority of the voters.
The principles and values they stand for and the fights they decide to take on will determine their success. What they have lost in affiliation over the past few months is not irretrievably gone, but having to make up lost ground is hardly the way Republicans wanted to start the 2016 campaign.