Published February 1, 2024
All the talk about candidates often obscures the simple fact that elections are mainly a battle between parties. Recent shifts in partisan voter identification suggest Republicans may be in a better position than they have been for years.
It may surprise readers to learn that the GOP has faced an often-significant disadvantage in baseline support despite frequently winning national elections. Democrats surged into the lead after the Depression and increased it throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat in 1964 could have been predicted simply by looking at the Democrats’ 26-point lead in partisan ID.
That gap narrowed after Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection, but Democrats still held a single-digit advantage throughout most of the last 40 years. The best the GOP could manage, once the partisan leaning of independents was factored in, were ties or slight advantages after apparent war victories against Iraq in 1991 and 2004.
Joe Biden’s presidency, however, has changed everything. Democratic Party identification has been steadily dropping throughout his term. Recent data from Gallup shows that Democrats now trail Republicans by two points, factoring in GOP-leaning independents. Moreover, Republicans held a one-point lead in 2022, too. This is the first time since the 1930s that Republicans have held a partisan lead for two consecutive years.
These data are even better once one looks at the nature of the Democratic coalition. They are increasingly reliant on white, college-educated voters and African Americans. These people are concentrated in states that Democrats already win by large numbers, such as New York, California, and Illinois. Trailing the GOP nationally by two points means they surely trail by larger numbers in virtually every swing state.
That gives the eventual Republican nominee, likely Donald Trump, a big leg up. All he must do is excite Republicans and avoid being wiped out with true independents. We’ve seen before that Trump or his endorsees can mess that up. But it’s always better to fight from the high ground than to march into withering fire.
This is an unfamiliar position for the Democrats, as they will be fighting uphill for the first time in any of their lives. Traditionally, the Democratic partisan edge meant they could win by rallying the base and splitting independents. Now, however, that results in a defeat. They can win only if they rally the base and carry independents by a significant margin.
Biden’s campaign so far shows he has no clue that the rules have essentially changed. He remains focused on generating enthusiasm among recalcitrant Democrats by talking about abortion and not making a deal on the border. This keeps his party united, but it doesn’t provide independents who are unhappy with him a reason to give him their vote.
This means his campaign is entirely reliant on making Republicans appear to be even worse. That had some success in the midterms, as Democrats won Senate and gubernatorial races in states where Republicans had partisan advantages such as Arizona and Georgia. But it will likely be a very different matter when independents need to back him rather than simply oppose a Republican.
This doesn’t mean Republicans should rest easy. Core GOP party identification remains low at only 27 percent. Republicans hold a partisan lead because more independents lean toward them rather than feeling any enthusiasm for the brand. It’s noteworthy that nine decades of history has reversed, but history also tells us that advantages can fade quickly.
Conservatives can nonetheless look to the future with hope. The last four years have shown many Americans what national Democrats really want, and they don’t like it. The national media, academia, and big business may be lined up against conservative ideas, but they are losing the argument that matters, the one taking place between average Americans talking with family and friends.
2024 is shaping up to be a potentially decisive election. If Republicans can maintain their advantage and avoid antagonizing independents, they can do more than retake the White House and Senate: They can become the default majority party for the first time since Babe Ruth played for the Yankees. That would be a victory for the ages and the necessary precondition for genuinely moving the country rightward.
Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies and provides commentary on American politics. His work focuses on how America’s political order is being upended by populist challenges, from the left and the right. He also studies populism’s impact in other democracies in the developed world.