By itself, the state of the economy is enough to guarantee a close election, and every national survey during the past two weeks has put Obama and Romney in a statistical tie. Now another key factor points in the same direction—the shifting balance between the political parties. This matters because party preferences and voting patterns are more closely linked today than they have been in several generations—and two recent in-depth surveys of the party system document that a clean Democratic victory, of the sort the party enjoyed in 2008, is exceedingly unlikely. The surging Democratic tide of four years ago has ebbed, exposing a partisan shoreline that more closely resembles what prevailed in 2004.
Let’s begin with the Gallup poll released on August 29. At this time four years ago, 54 percent of registered voters had a favorable view of the Democratic Party, versus 39 percent with an unfavorable view. Republicans trailed badly, with 41 percent favorable and 51 percent unfavorable.
Not that much has changed for Republicans since then. Today, their favorable rating stands at 44 percent, and unfavorable at 50. The big shift has come for Democrats, whose edge over Republicans has completely disappeared. Only 43 percent of registered voters have a favorable view of the Democratic Party (down 13 points), while 52 percent have an unfavorable view (up 13 points). The erosion has been especially severe among men (15 points), whites (17 points), voters 35 to 54 years old (17 points), and Independents (12 points). Only nonwhite voters are more favorably inclined toward the Democratic Party than they were four years ago. And while a successful convention can provide a boost, history suggests that any such improvement in public perceptions of a political party is likely to disappear by Election Day.
On August 23, the Pew Research Center released a report entitled “A Closer Look at the Parties in 2012”, backed by more than 20 pages of detailed tables. Pew’s findings are consistent with Gallup’s. In 2008, Democrats plus Independents who lean Democratic constituted fully 51 percent of registered voters, versus only 39 percent for Republicans plus Independents who lean their way. But now, the 12-point Democratic edge of four years ago has shrunk to only 5 points, 48 to 43, statistically indistinguishable from the split in 2004. Among whites, the Republican edge has expanded from 2 points to 12; among white men, from 11 points to 22. While Democrats have lost ground in every age cohort, they still maintain an edge of 19 points among Millennials, down from 32 points in 2008.
Drilling down more deeply, Pew finds finer-grained trends. Republicans have made only modest gains among college-educated men, and none at all among college-educated women. But among men with less than a BA, Republicans have turned a 6-point deficit into a 3-point edge; among less educated women, the Democratic advantage has been pared from 20 points to 8. Relative to 2008, Republicans have made no gains among registered voters with household incomes of $75,000 or more, but they are doing much better among those making less than that. And all of these changes are more pronounced among white voters.
These demographic trends map onto geographical shifts. Republicans have gained no ground in urban areas, but they’re doing much better in the suburbs and in rural communities than they did four years ago. They have made larger gains in the South, Midwest, and West than in the Northeast, which remains a Democratic Party bastion.
The breakdown by religion tells an intriguing story. It’s no surprise that Republicans are doing even better among white evangelicals than they were four years ago. But they have turned an even split among white mainline Protestants into a 12-point advantage, and they have transformed an 8-point deficit among white Catholics into a 9-point edge. (This last statistic may help explain why the Romney-Ryan ticket is doing better than expected in the upper Midwest.)
The Pew survey portrays 2012 party system that is not only more evenly balanced than in 2008 but also more deeply divided. 71 percent of conservatives (81 percent of white conservatives) now identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, while 84 percent of liberals identify with or lean toward Democrats. The gap in attitudes toward fiscal policy and the role of government in the economy is astounding. 82 percent of Republicans, but only 29 percent of Democrats, favor a smaller government providing fewer services. 66 percent of Republicans, but only 33 percent of Democrats, choose reducing the deficit over spending to boost the economy. (Only 10 percent of Republicans support the 2009 stimulus package, compared to 68 percent of Democrats.) Support for the president’s health reform law tops 80 percent among Democrats but doesn’t reach double digits among Republicans.
A careful reader might object, reasonably, that a 5-point edge in preferences among registered voters, tough down from 2008, is still good news for Democrats. But matters are more complicated than that. In 2004, according to Pew, the Democrats enjoyed a 3-point edge but ending up losing the popular vote by more than 2 points. Over the past four elections, in fact, the eventual popular vote margin has been, on average, 5 points more favorable to Republican candidates than the balance among registered voters would have suggested. If that pattern is repeated in 2012, the 5-point pro-Democratic edge in voter preference turns into a popular vote tie—which is what every national survey is now showing.
The bottom line: if the 2012 election is more about mobilizing the persuaded than persuading the perplexed, then the current standing of the two parties suggests that the election will be very divisive—and very close.