At face value, there's a lot for Democrats to like in this USA Today report published this morning, but as is always the case, the details and context matter.
More Americans identify as Democrats than Republicans by a margin that hasn't been seen in a decade, according to a report released by Gallup on Wednesday. An average of 49% of adults age 18 and older reported Democratic Party affiliation or said they are independent with Democratic leanings throughout the first quarter of 2021, the pollster reported. The survey was conducted by phone from January-March. In comparison, 40% of adults identified as Republican or Republican-leaning.
The gap between the parties shows Democrats with a 9% advantage -- the largest since Barack Obama's re-election in late 2012.
Just as importantly, that shift has grown with surprising speed. As recently as late last year, Gallup found that the gap in party affiliation "was virtually nonexistent." Now, that gap has reached its highest level in nearly a decade.
Making matters just a little worse for the GOP, Gallup's national data also found that only 25% of U.S. adults "firmly identify with the Republicans, down from 29% late last year."
And if we were to end the conversation here, it'd be reasonable for Democrats to celebrate. The party is seeing a spike in the number of Americans who identify as Dems; President Joe Biden's approval rating is holding steady; the economy is improving; vaccinations are reaching shoulders quickly; and the party's COVID relief package is proving to be quite popular. Some partisans might be forgiven for thinking the 2022 midterms might defy the historical model of the president's party losing a bunch of seats.
But -- and you had to know a "but" was coming -- there's a nagging detail hanging overhead: we've seen polling data like this before, and we know what soon followed.
Gallup's report included a chart that's worth reviewing because it helps drive the point home. In late 1992, for example, the gap between Democrats and Republicans looked an awful lot like it does now, and for good reason: George H.W. Bush was blamed for a recession, and Democrats cruised to sweeping national victories.
Two years later, voters elected a Republican Congress.
The gap between the parties in 1998 was even wider, as Bill Clinton received credit for an economic boom, and Republicans faced a backlash over an unpopular impeachment ordeal. Two years later, George W. Bush nevertheless became president.
The largest modern gap between the parties came in late 2008, in the midst of multiple domestic and foreign crises, failures, and scandals. The conditions helped propel Barack Obama into the White House, but it didn't stop voters from delivering massive gains to Republicans two years later.
In other words, we've been here before. Voters elect Republican officials, those officials fail, and the pendulum swings heavily in Democrats' direction. The trouble for Dems is the pendulum never seems to stay there for very long.
It's entirely possible that this time will be different. Biden and congressional leaders appear to be heavily focused on delivering results with ambitious and far-reaching plans that voters like. Previous Democratic spikes have been short-lived, but perhaps the party will extend its support through effective governance.
But with the last few decades in mind, that would be an anomaly.