The number 27 is a problem for both Republicans and Democrats. That’s the percentage of U.S. adults who identified as either a Democrat or a Republican, according to the Gallup polling company. For the past 30 years, self-identified Democrats have outnumbered Republicans in all but a few years. Now the parties are tied at a relatively low 27 percent each.
As recently as 2008, 36 percent of adults identified as Democrats. For Republicans, it was 34 percent in 2004. A 9-point drop for Democrats and a 7-point drop for Republicans should concern both parties.
By contrast, the percentage of adults who identify as independents has grown to 43 percent. With a high percentage of voters bemoaning a likely Joe Biden-Donald Trump rematch in 2024, and a growing number of voters abandoning the parties to become independents, anything could happen in the November election.
While most Republicans will vote for Trump and most Democrats will vote for Biden (assuming both men are their party’s nominees), a declining number of party loyalists means the winning candidate will have to attract a larger percentage of independents, who will determine the winner.
Gallup also tracked adults who identify as independents but lean toward voting Republican or Democrat. Those results barely favor Republicans (45 percent) over Democrats (43 percent), another important change. Gallup says, “In most years, there have been more Democrats and Democratic leaners than Republicans and Republican leaners.”
As fewer people identify with either the GOP or Democratic Party, they may be more willing to vote for the other party’s candidate or for a third-party candidate, or just skip the presidential race, even as they return to their favored down-ticket Republicans or Democrats. The possibility of voting for a third-party increases if a credible candidate enters the race.
And one just might. The group No Labels is still deciding whether it will field a third-party challenge, featuring a moderate Republican and Democrat. That could give independents displeased with Biden’s performance and Trump’s distractions a reasonable alternative.
But isn’t Trump leading Biden in the polls? Yes, and he has over the past few months. In the latest Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll, Trump was leading Biden by 7 points — 48 to 41 percent.
However, a lot can happen over the next nine months. The economy may pick up steam, especially if the inflation rate, and therefore the Federal Reserve Bank-controlled interest rates, continue downward. We’ve also seen consumer confidence pick up, which would likely favor Biden.
In addition, Biden has begun his efforts to attract — some might say “buy” — more votes by dolling out taxpayer dollars to various interest groups.
But immigration and the border have become a huge albatross for him, so much so that Biden is now claiming he would shut down the border immediately if current laws permitted — a claim no one believes.
On the other hand, recent polls have indicated that while voters increasingly sympathized with Trump as the criminal charges mounted, raising his poll numbers, they might change their opinions if he is convicted.
You also can’t rule out Trump’s tendency to make derogatory or unhinged statements, which can turn off independents who are looking for a return to normalcy.
As we get closer to November, the polls are likely to tighten. Incumbent presidents are very hard to beat. Ronald Reagan did it to Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Biden did it to Trump in 2020, but it’s rare. The biggest threat to Biden’s reelection may be a credible third-party ticket.
The well-respected Democratic political analyst Doug Sosnik recently wrote, “Biden’s narrow margin of victory in 2020, the nature of his support, and how evenly divided the country remains all contribute to the potential impact of a third-party option.” And Sosnik concludes, “Trump can’t win without a third-party candidate dividing the anti-Trump vote.” (I made a similar point last July.)
An expanding independent voting bloc, along with a lackluster and health-challenged Biden running against a divisive and unfiltered Trump (with a possible guilty verdict) makes the election outcome anyone’s guess. Highly motivated Republicans and Democrats won’t decide the election. A growing number of independents will. And neither candidate is doing much to attract them.