Surveys in 2006 saw an erosion in Republican Party affiliation that opened the gap between the major parties from 1.6% to over 6%, favoring Democrats, by the end of the year. Twelve months later, the performance of the Democrats while controlling Congress has almost completely reversed the trend. Rolling into 2008, Rasmussen shows that Republicans have their highest share of affiliation since January 2006 and only trail Democrats by two points:
The number of Americans who consider themselves to be Republicans jumped nearly two percentage points in December to 34.2%. That’s the largest market share for the Republican brand in nearly two years, since January 2006 (see history from January 2004 to present).
At the same time, the number of Democrats fell to 36.3%. That’s down a point compared to a month ago. During 2007, the number of Democrats has ranged from a low of 35.9% in July to a high of 37.8% in February….
Back in May, the Republicans fell to their lowest level of party identification of the past four years (30.8%). Then, the immigration debate raged in Congress and some Republican legislators helped defeat an unpopular Senate immigration bill. Republicans have gained ground in five of the seven months since then. But, the gains in December—1.7 percentage points—matched the total gains for the previous six months combined.
The December gains for the GOP coincide with increased public confidence in the War on Terror. It’s interesting to note that this did not improve President Bush’s Job Approval ratings while helping the Republican Party overall.
The realignment comes at a “startling” time, Rasmussen notes. The report also suggests this as a reaction to the performance of Democrats in Congress. Nancy Pelosi has only a 38% approval rating, compared to 49% at the start of the year, suggesting that independents have lost confidence in her leadership, and possibly some Democrats. They note the sharp increase in December as a corollary to the improving confidence in the war on terror, which also suggests that the electorate may exact a price on Democrats for their strident defeatism throughout most of 2007.
It could mean something else as well. The past year gave voters a good look at the Democratic primary challengers, a thoroughly inexperienced lot. Given that the three Democrats with any chance of winning the nomination comprise less experience in national office combined than John McCain and no executive experience at all, some disenchantment may have set in with voters. It certainly doesn’t give Democrats a reason to think that they have momentum for a general election — in fact, this survey shows the opposite.
Independent affiliation has also dropped. This looks like former Republicans returning to the party. Self-described independents only make up 29.5% of the electorate, which is the first time since June 2006 that number has been below 30%.
After losing their first national election in four cycles in 2006, it looks like Republicans could rebound in 2008. They have the momentum, and they have closed the gap almost to where it was in November 2004. A few more months of Democratic incompetence in Congress could close the gap altogether.