Many Republicans are giddy over a Gallup poll released this week that found a 14-percentage point shift in the nation from majority Democratic support to majority Republican support during the past year. Understandably so; this marks the largest Republican advantage in over 25 years. The last time Republican support was this high was in 1995, after the Republicans, led by my father, Newt Gingrich, won the House of Representatives for the first time since 1952.
But Gallup’s findings don’t mean that Republicans hold all the cards. The reality is that independents will have a massive impact on the elections’ outcomes this fall. Currently, 42% of voters identify as independent.
Let’s look at the data: In the first quarter of 2021, Democrats and Democratic-leaning respondents were 49% of voters; in the fourth quarter of 2021, they had dropped to 42% (13 polls taken by Gallup of 12,416 people throughout 2021, sampling error +/- 1 point). At the same time, Republicans and Republican-leaning voters increased from 40% to 47% of all voters. Think of it as a -7 for Democrats to a +7 for Republicans, or a 14-point shift in how the electorate is leaning.
Again, these fourth-quarter numbers represent the largest Republican advantage in a generation. This is great news for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) as it will energize their candidates and their campaigns.
The Republicans could still overreach and underperform what they could achieve over the long term. But, if they carry out a well-planned strategy, they could not only win the midterm elections but they could change the country’s political dynamics for decades to come.
Some Republicans around the country are pointing to these recent poll results as an indication of how the midterm elections will turn out (a sweep for Republicans). But nota bene: There is an eternity until the midterms, and the shift in the parties is due more to the shift in independent leanings than to any shift in party identification. Additionally, the December 2021 monthly data “showed the two parties about even,” according to Gallup, with “46% Republican/Republican leaning and 44% Democratic/Democratic leaning.”
Since 1991, when Gallup began measuring party leanings, Democrats have held the advantage over Republicans. “Democrats held larger, double-digit advantages in isolated quarters between 1992 and 1999,” according to Gallup, “and nearly continuously between mid-2006 and early 2009.”
While Democrats have dominated during the period of measurement, “the GOP has held as much as a five-point advantage in a total of only four quarters since 1991.” The goal of the GOP should not be to just win the midterms but to win the midterms and set the stage to be the majority party for decades to come.
This will require the Republicans to pull independents into their fold. “Overall in 2021, an average of 29% of Americans identified as Democrats, 27% as Republicans and 42% as independents. Roughly equal proportions of independents leaned to the Democratic Party (17%) and to the Republican Party (16%).”
This goal cannot be achieved by vilifying the other side nor by browbeating them based on their past lackluster performance. Bringing independents into the tent will require much more from the Republican Party and Republican candidates. Remember, the last time the Republicans held this type of advantage was after they took over the House of Representatives in 1994.
They were able to win because they had an overwhelmingly positive message. They laid out the Contract with America, which contained clearly defined issues that voters cared about, and those voters responded positively. A positive message, a focus on real issues and a quality candidate — a winning combination.
While many candidates are running to former President Donald Trump for an endorsement, my recommendation is that no candidate should base their campaign on anyone’s endorsement. Voters want to help the candidate who lays out a vision of a brighter future for themselves and their families. The focus should be on the voters, not other politicians.
It’s easy to say, “Well, Biden’s just so bad, there is no way we can lose.” Whether in sports, business or politics, if your strategy depends on having a terrible opponent, you’re not competing at the highest level — and the American people deserve the best. Independents are currently in the drivers’ seats and they’re likely to remain that way. Republicans would be wise to give them the focus they deserve.