A new Gallup analysis examined how Americans' partisan preferences shifted over the course of the year 2021, with findings that indicate momentum for Republicans heading into this midterm election year.
Gallup found that Americans' partisan preferences were relatively stable when looking at the entire year 2021. But when the year was broken down into quarters, there was a discernible shift. In the first quarter of 2021, Democrats had a 9-point advantage over Republicans, but by the final quarter of the year that had shifted sharply to a 5-point Republican advantage, according to Gallup's aggregate data.
"Both the 9-point Democratic advantage in the first quarter and the 5-point Republican edge in the fourth quarter are among the largest Gallup has measured for each party in any quarter since it began regularly measuring party identification and leaning in 1991," writes Gallup senior editor Jeffrey Jones.
Party identification trends can often be strong indicators of how a party will fare in House elections. And most in Washington already predict a bleak outcome for Democrats in November, in both the House and the Senate.
"I think what we're seeing is more significant for the midterms and possibly not tremendously significant for the long term," said Christine Matthews, a veteran Republican pollster.
Matthews pointed to the "generic ballot," a poll question that asks voters whether they'll vote for Democrats or Republicans for Congress. She saw a similar trend in the fourth quarter on that question, with Republicans holding an advantage over Democrats.
"By the time that we get to summer, if Democrats are still tied on the generic ballot, it's going to be a disaster for them in the midterms," Matthews said. "And they typically need to lead by 5-7 points to do well."
Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who worked on former President Barack Obama's campaigns, cautioned against making "broad pronouncements" based on limited data. But he said that the existing data suggests trends that are typical of a president's party headed into a midterm election year.
"What you have time and time again ... in our midterms is one side's demobilized and the other's mobilized. And right now, this looks like a classic midterm election for the president's party in power, where their voters are showing signs all along the pathway of lacking enthusiasm and demobilization," he said.
The shifts that Gallup found in 2021 occurred both in self-identified partisans and independents who leaned toward either party. Between the first quarter of 2021 and the fourth quarter, for example, the percentage of Democratic leaning independents dropped by five points. Among Republican-leaning independents, there was a 4-point increase over the same time period.
Belcher pointed out that party identification is fluid, and that it can also be viewed as a measure of enthusiasm.
"If you see your voters who were independent leaning Republican, and they're moving back into the Republican segment, that to me is about energy and mobilization possibility," he said. "And if you see those softer Democrats pulling back, that to me also is something that is not far from an enthusiasm measure."
Gallup also found that self-identified independents remain the largest political group in the United States.
Overall in 2021, they found that 42% of Americans identified as independents, compared to 29% who identified as Democrats and 27% as Republicans. Among independents, roughly equal shares leaned toward each major political party in 2021.
Americans have been increasingly self-identifying as independents over the last decade, according to Gallup. Prior to 2011, the share of Americans who self-identified as independents had never reached 40%.