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Morning Jay: American Political Partisanship

6:00 AM, Feb 23, 2011 • By JAY COST
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Morning Jay: American Political Partisanship

Earlier this week, Gallup released an impressive data set on American political partisanship in the 50 states through 2010. Combing this, with the historical data Gallup offers, we can get a good sense of the changes in partisanship over time, as well as a sense of where the political winds are blowing in various parts of the country. As we shall see, it’s a mixed bag for both parties. 
(Quick note: the Gallup data is for American adults, which usually “skews” Democratic if one is trying to predict the electorate. However, if one wants a general sense of where the country at large is, polls of adults are the most valuable. Also, to maintain consistency across years, I have dropped Alaska and Hawaii.)
To start, let’s compare changes in partisan identification from 2008 to 2010. We’ll examine it in two different ways. First, we’ll look at it by the competitiveness of the state in presidential elections. “Dem States” are those won by Gore, Kerry, and Obama. “GOP States” are those won by Bush twice, and McCain. “Swing States” are those won by both sides at least once in the last decade.  Second, we’ll group the states into their Census-defined regions -- Midwest, Northeast, South, and West.
The following chart shows the median statewide value for each party along these two axes:

As we can see, this is mostly good news for Republicans. Relative to the party’s nadir in 2008, there has been a notable improvement across Dem, Swing, and GOP states as well as geographical regions. In fact, the GOP has improved its standing relative to the Democrats in every state in the last two years.
However, all is not sweetness and light for the Republicans. Most of the movement has been in the decline of the Democratic Party, rather than a massive rebound for the GOP.  So, in the last two years, it is not so much that the Republicans have restored their reputation as the Democrats have damaged theirs.
We can appreciate this even more so by comparing 2002 to 2010 along the same two axes (competitiveness and region). Recall that 2002 was a year that Republicans were riding high: George W. Bush’s job approval rating was astronomically positive, and the GOP actually picked up seats in the midterms. That’s as close to a high water mark as anything we have seen for the Republicans in our lifetime. How does 2010 stack up to that year?

Clearly, it is the Democrats, not the Republicans, who are in a better position relative to where they were in 2002. This is despite the fact that the Republicans saw their fortunes turn around last year. If we study this chart carefully, we’ll see that, by and large the Democrats have not advanced very much between 2002 and 2010; instead, it’s that the Republican position has declined substantially. 
This should put the 2010 midterm election victory into broader perspective. Clearly, the GOP has not rebounded entirely, or even very much. Instead, it’s the Democrats who have fallen.
If we broaden our historical perspective, we can move beyond the ebbs-and-flows of the parties' reputations in any given cycle, and reflect instead on trends. Where have the parties gained lasting ground? Where have they lost it? If we step back and look at 1993, we can get an answer to that question. Again, we’ll keep all of our categories the same – Dem, swing, and GOP; Midwest, Northeast, South, West.

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