Saturday, April 29, 2006

Steve Clemons on Party Identification

In his latest post at The Washington Note, Steve Clemons criticizes Tim Roemer, the president of The Center for National Policy. In a NYT op-ed, Roemer argues that the Democrats, rather than attempting to articulate a detailed policy vision, should just take a page from the Republican campaign of 1946 when they ran under the slogan of "Had Enough? Vote Republican?"

I won't get into whether this is or isn't a good strategy for the Democrats this year, but in making his argument, Clemons makes the following claim:

What Roemer neglects is, that unlike 1946, there are more declared Independents than either Republicans or Democrats today -- and more independent-leaning and independent-minded Republicans and Democrats than the American political scene has witnessed in a century.

First, I would like to know where Clemons has reliable party identification data going back 100 years since political scientists haven't been measuring this concept for much more than 50 years.

Second, there's no evidence for his assertion that there are more "declared Independents than either Republicans or Democrats today." According to the 2004 National Election Study (see below), 32 percent of respondents identified themselves as either strong or weak Democrats and 29 percent as either strong or weak Republicans. Pure independents (those who don't lean to one party or another), made up just under 10 percent of the population. Even if you throw in leaning independents, that's only gets you to 31 percent. At best, there are more independents than Republicans, but self-described Democrats top both of them.

Strong Democrats17.0%
Weak Democrats15.0%
Independents, Lean Democratic17.6%
Pure Independents9.9%
Independents, Lean Republican11.6%
Weak Republicans12.9%
Strong Republicans16.2%

Strong and Weak Democrats32%
Strong and Weak Republicans29%

Furthermore, just how "independent" are the independents? In 2004, 87 percent of independents who leaned Democratic voted for John Kerry, compared to 83 percent of weak Democrats and 97 percent of strong Democrats. The same is true on the Republican side as 86 percent of independents who leaned Republican voted for George W. Bush, compared to 89 percent of weak Republicans and 98 percent of strong Republicans. In other words, the "independent-leaning and independent-minded Republicans and Democrats" that Clemons discusses look pretty much like non-independent Republicans and Democrats.

Looking at party registration figures tells a similar story. The most recent data that I could find says that in the 29 states plus DC that have party registration, 33 percent of voters are registered Republicans, 42 percent are registered Democrats, and only 25 percent are registered as independents or some other party.

In short, despite what Steve Clemons might think, party identification is alive and well.

**One additional comment, it seems unlikely that the Republicans' 1946 "Had Enough?" campaign worked because it played to Republican partisans. My guess is that Democrats had a party ID advantage back then, so for the appeal to have worked it had to play well with independents and disaffected Democrats, as well as Republicans.


MSS said...

OK, so 87% of Dem-leaning independents voted for Kerry and 86% of Rep-leaning independents voted for Bush. Exactly what is the usefulness of this information for arguments like those of Clemons (or rejoinders to same)?

It is not as if those of us who are independent actually had a choice that was, you know, independent.

Philip Klinkner said...

True enough on the lack of a real independent candidate MSS, but researchers have shown for years that these so-called "leaning independents" really aren't all that independent. So when Clemons tries to argue that they are a huge pool of voters who could swing one way or another, there's no support to back him up.