Is the Democratic party shrinking?

The number of Americans who identify as Democrats has reached a historic low, while remaining higher than Republicans, according to a Gallup poll published Monday.

David Goldman/Associated Press
Phoebe Jordan, 8, clutches a stuffed donkey while listening to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton address an audience during a campaign stop at Trident Technical College Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in North Charleston, S.C. Sitting at left is Jordan's teacher Kim Davidson with her daughter Caroline at right.

The latest Gallup poll on party identification, published Monday, found that the number of respondents who identify as Democrats reached a historical low of 29 percent in the past year.

At the same time, 26 percent of respondents identified as Republicans, and 42 percent as independents – down one point from 2014, a record high year. Conducted annually since 1988, the Gallup poll sampled 12,137 adults, ages 18 and older, across all 50 states.

The share of Republican-leaning voters has barely recovered from its lowest point in 2013, when 25 percent of Americans identified as Republican. The Democrats’ current membership is the lowest it’s ever been in the 27-year history of the poll, but earlier data points to the conclusion that the current 29 percent is also the all-time-low since 1951.

According to Gallup researchers, independent voters have nearly always outnumbered their partisan counterparts. In 1988, the share for each of the three categories was fairly close – 36 percent for Democrats, 33 for independents, and 31 percent for Republicans.

But by the start of the 1990s, the number of independents rose above the two others and – except for the three years immediately following George W. Bush’ reelection – remained so. Since 2008, the number of independents has quickly risen from below 36 percent to 43 percent in 2014.

When factoring in the distinction between Democratic-leaning independents and Republican-leaning independents, an overall 45 percent of respondents said would be more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate. And over all, 42 percent of respondents are would be more likely to vote Republican.

What exactly do these numbers mean?

The rising number of Americans who identify as independent voters can be in part attributed to frustrations with partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C. Other polls show that American discontent over the federal government has become a major issue in the past several years, as party favorability has decreased on both sides of the aisle.

And despite the Democrats’ current low, the liberal party has more consistently exceeded its conservative rival in the past quarter-century. The highest point-advantage for the Democrats, 12 points, occurred in 2008, “when President George W. Bush was highly unpopular in the midst of the prolonged Iraq war and the emerging economic recession,” writes Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones.

In fact, some political pundits believe American policy is actually becoming more liberal.

In a sprawling cover story on America’s shift towards the left, The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart notes that the current moment in American history strikes an exceptional resemblance to the chaotic milieu of the late 1960s and early 70s. But instead of gearing to turn right as Americans did right before the Reagan era, America, including its liberal-leaning moderates, has been drifting left following George W. Bush’s unpopular tax cuts and foreign policy, especially as Millennials come of age and minority populations continue to grow.

“But that’s only half the story,” Mr. Beinart explains:

Because if George W. Bush’s failures pushed the Democratic Party to the left, Barack Obama’s have pushed it even further. If Bush was responsible for the liberal infrastructure that helped elect Obama, Obama has now inadvertently contributed to the creation of two movements – Occupy [Wall Street] and Black Lives Matter – dedicated to the proposition that even the liberalism he espouses is not left-wing enough.

Other experts disagree. Analysts at the Foundation for Economic Education, a libertarian think tank, postulated in July that America is not becoming more liberal, but rather libertarian.

Using a collection of Gallup polls, the organization found that in the past 30 years, Americans have increasingly favored socially liberal positions such as the legalization of marijuana and same-sex marriage, while supporting the notion that the federal government has “too much power.”

Whatever the case for Democrats, it’s the independents who will make a difference in the 2016 election. Many may be, in fact, Libertarians. But this means it will really be down to the individual candidates – their messages, their styles, and their policies.

“The lack of strong attachment to the parties could make candidate-specific factors, as opposed to party loyalty, a greater consideration for voters in choosing a president in this year's election than they have been in past elections,” Mr. Jones concludes.

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