Are the parties over?

Republicans have understood for decades that it’s not considered “cool” to be part of the GOP, except perhaps in a weird, transgressive way among the contrarians of contrarians. These days, though, Democrats may have to get used to that dismissal. According to Gallup, the percentage of adults identifying as political independents have hit an all-time high, and party identification has dropped for both major parties:

Forty-two percent of Americans, on average, identified as political independents in 2013, the highest Gallup has measured since it began conducting interviews by telephone 25 years ago. Meanwhile, Republican identification fell to 25%, the lowest over that time span. At 31%, Democratic identification is unchanged from the last four years but down from 36% in 2008.

And the news is worse for the Republicans than it is for the Democrats:

Americans’ increasing shift to independent status has come more at the expense of the Republican Party than the Democratic Party. Republican identification peaked at 34% in 2004, the year George W. Bush won a second term in office. Since then, it has fallen nine percentage points, with most of that decline coming during Bush’s troubled second term. When he left office, Republican identification was down to 28%. It has declined or stagnated since then, improving only slightly to 29% in 2010, the year Republicans “shellacked” Democrats in the midterm elections.

Not since 1983, when Gallup was still conducting interviews face to face, has a lower percentage of Americans, 24%, identified as Republicans than is the case now. That year, President Ronald Reagan remained unpopular as the economy struggled to emerge from recession. By the following year, amid an improving economy and re-election for the increasingly popular incumbent president, Republican identification jumped to 30%, a level generally maintained until 2007.

Why might that be? In 2007, widespread dissatisfaction about the aggressive foreign policy of George Bush probably pushed the more libertarian and/or isolationist Republicans out of the fold. The emergence of the Tea Party in 2009/10 provided a movement within the Right with which to identify more than party affiliation. (It’s worth noting that Democrats don’t have anything analogous to that pressure now, too.) Those forces, along with age and ethnic demographic pressures, surely contributed to a narrowing of Republican affiliation.

However, Democrats haven’t been immune, either. When Barack Obama first won the presidency, Democratic affiliation peaked at 36%, the highest in Gallup history. It’s now at 31%, and has been since 2010 — on an annual, averaged basis. Look what has happened in 2013, though:


Both parties have lost affiliation by a relatively significant margin in 2013, with Democrats dropping 4 points and the GOP dropping five — with most of the movement of the latter before the shutdown. All of that went to the “independent” banner, which gained nine points in the past year on a quarterly basis.

How about leaners? The news there is bad for Republicans, too. In 2011, the GOP had eliminated a 12-point deficit to tie up with Democrats 45/45. The gap has gone back to a six-point deficit, 47/41. Oddly, though, the polls for the generic Congressional ballot show a dead heat, according to the RCP average, which suggests that this annualization of 2013 results on binary choice may be missing a late trend. The chart at RCP more than suggests that case, too.

Nevertheless, the overall trend demonstrates that both parties are losing ground with the electorate. This might be a reflection of a lack of commonality between elected officials and leading party activists and the electorate as a whole, or it could be a cultural shift in which individualism triumphs over venerable institutions in general. Both parties need to take stock, and take stock quickly, if they want to maintain their relevance — or watch as alternate parties grow large enough to turn them both into the Whigs.