The Republican Party has made big gains across geographic, gender, educational, and socioeconomic lines, according to a report released today by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. But even as the GOP is better positioned going into 2012 than it was in 2008, the data shows that the key to victory going forward remains in appealing to independent voters.
According to Pew, registered voters who identify as Republican or leaning Republican have made substantial gains across many demographic groups since 2008, most notably among whites, voters under 30, and Americans making $75,000 or less per year. Forty-seven percent of registered voters currently identify as Democratic or leaning Democratic, compared to 43 percent who identify as Republicans or leaning Republican, with a margin of error of 1.5 percent. That represents a net eight-point gain for the GOP since 2008, when the figures were 51 percent for Democrats and 39 percent for the GOP (with a 1-percent margin of error). Broken down by particular demographic groups, these splits become more pronounced. Among non-Hispanic whites, Republicans now enjoy a 13 point advantage, compared to a two-point advantage in 2008. Among people making $30,000 to $74,999 per year, Republicans and Democrats are now evenly split, compared to a 12-point Democrat advantage in 2008. Likewise, among those making under $30,000 per year, the Democratic lead has slipped by 12 points. And among people born in 1981 or later, the generation known as the Millennials, Democratic or leaning-Democratic identification has slipped from 62 percent to 52 percent, while Republican support has grown from 30 to 39 percent.
Remove those who are "leaning" and count only voters who identify with one party or the other, and the data shows that gains among independents account for the GOP's gains in the Pew numbers. According to Leah Christian, senior researcher at the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, "Basic Republican identification hasn't moved since '08 very much. But what has moved is that among that growing number of independents, more are leaning to Republican Party." Twenty-eight percent of registered voters identified as Republican in 2008, a figure that remains at 28 now in 2011, while Democrats have dipped four percentage points, from 38 to 34, over that period. But independents have grown by five percentage points since 2008, from 29 to 34. According to the Pew report, this is "by all indications, the highest percent independent since party identification was first measured in the late 1930s."
Also trending in Republicans' favor are typical voting patterns at election time, says Christian. "Not, of course, all registered voters turn out," she says. "Traditionally, [and] think '08 was one of those exceptions as well, but traditionally, the likely voters' composition has been more Republican than it is among registered voters overall."
However, a broader look at the data tempers the apparent leap in Republican support. For example, the jump in voters who identify or lean Republican is in part a rebound from recent low levels of support for the party. In 2008, only 39 percent of voters identified as or leaned Republican. As Christian explains, "The loss for Republicans really started before 2008, [during] sort of the last years of the Bush administration, about '06 to '08." This means that the latest apparent GOP gains in Pew's survey do not make for particularly high levels of support. In fact, the current respective figures for those identifying with or leaning towards either party are comparable to the same figures from 2000 and 2004.
In addition, among two of the fastest-growing voting groups in America—Hispanics and Millennials—Democrats still reign supreme. Pew data shows that 64 percent of Hispanics, who are growing far faster than any other major racial or ethnic group in the country, either identify as or lean Democratic, compared to 22 percent for Republicans. This represents a four-point net loss for the GOP since 2008. In addition, Millennial support of Democrats has dropped 10 points since 2008, this generation still supports Democrats to a greater degree than any of the other generations Pew identified: Generation X, Baby Boomers, and the "Silent" generation, which consists of those born from 1928 through 1945. As more Millennials reach voting age, this might mean greater support for Democrats, says Christian: "Since they've come on the scene ... they have been more Democratic," she says. These new voters might also change the dynamics of the independent voting population, says Christian. "Young people are actually a group that when first asked, often identify as independents, but many of them lean Democratic," she says.