Democratic Allegiance Hits a Low; Can the GOP Seize the Opportunity?

The number of Americans identifying themselves as Democrats has dropped to a record low in nearly 34 years of ABC News/Washington Post polls, marking the party's challenges after its poor showing in the 2014 midterm elections. The Republican Party, by contrast, has gained sharply in popularity, if not allegiance.

Just 26 percent of Americans now identify themselves as Democrats, down from 32 percent six weeks ago to the fewest since ABC/Post polling began in 1981.

See PDF with full results, charts and tables here.

The GOP has not benefitted in terms of direct allegiance: Twenty-three percent of Americans describe themselves as Republicans, essentially unchanged from recent levels. Instead 41 percent say they're independents, extending a six-year run as the dominant choice.

But the GOP has gained in other gauges. Forty-seven percent see it favorably overall, up by a remarkable 14 percentage points since mid-October to its best among the general public since March 2006. Forty-four percent rate the Democrats favorably - also up since the heat of the midterm elections has eased, but just by 5 points. The Republican Party's numerical advantage in this basic measure of popularity is its first since 2002.

The Republicans in Congress, moreover, lead Barack Obama by 47-38 percent in trust to handle the economy, a clear GOP advantage on this central issue for the first time in his presidency.

Beyond the economy, 43 percent also trust the Republicans over Obama to handle the nation's main problems in general, while 39 percent pick Obama - not a meaningful difference in this case, but the first time the GOP has held even a numerical advantage vs. Obama on the question. And with no help from his initiative on immigration, the president trails the GOP by 9 points in trust to handle that issue, as well.

Obama has a 41 percent job approval rating in this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates; that's a single point from his career low, with 54 percent disapproving. His rating on the economy is essentially flat; 52 percent disapprove, despite recent economic gains. Fifty-four percent disapprove of his work on international affairs, a steadily negative majority since September. And while he's gained 9 points on handling immigration, that's only to 38 percent approval, with 55 percent disapproving on this issue.

ECONOMY? - The irony in these results is that the economy's off the floor. Sixty-nine percent are optimistic about their own finances in the year ahead, the most since 2007 (albeit narrowly). And 54 percent are optimistic about the national economy, similar to last year but up from a low of 40 percent in early 2008. Other measures of consumer sentiment have improved recently.

The conclusion is that while a bad economy almost always damages a president, an improving one doesn't automatically help. That's clear in the survey results: Two years ago there were fewer economic optimists, but, on the heels of Obama's re-election, 80 percent of them approved of his overall job performance. Today, there are more optimists, but many fewer of them approve of Obama - just 55 percent. The rest see other things to criticize.

It's true, too, that the economy's improvement has left many Americans cold. Just two in 10 are highly optimistic about the economy; a third feels the same about their own finances. And far short of a majority, 41 percent, say their personal finances have been substantially boosted by easing gas and oil prices, including 25 percent who report a great deal of help. (That may still be plenty, though, to help keep registers ringing in the holiday shopping season.)

HISTORY - There's historical precedent for the Democratic Party's troubles. The GOP lost 6 points in allegiance after its midterm drubbing in 2006. The Democrats also lost ground, albeit less steeply, after their losses in the 1994 and 2010 midterms. The difference this time is that Democrats, who customarily outnumber Republicans, are at a new low.

That shows in another result, the number of adults who either identify themselves with one of the parties or say they lean that way. So-called "leaned" Democrats now account for 42 percent of adults; leaned Republicans account for 43 percent.

While that single-point difference is well within the poll's margin of sampling error, it's only the seventh time in hundreds of ABC/Post polls since 1981 that the GOP has been on the positive side of the ledger. The last was in June 2003, in the early days of the then-popular war in Iraq.

Earlier results have presaged the Democrats' weakness. The party hit a 30-year low in favorability and a 20-year high in disapproval of its members of Congress in separate ABC/Post polls in October.

OBAMA - The Democratic Party's woes are linked closely with the president's. His approval rating has averaged just 43 percent in 2014, his worst year by a significant margin. That's not as bad a sixth year as George W. Bush's, but far weaker than Bill Clinton's in the growing economy of 1998 (his impeachment notwithstanding), or Ronald Reagan's, likewise in a growth cycle.

Further, as the country's slogged through the deepest downturn since the Great Depression, Obama's career-long approval rating, 50 percent on average, lags those of all three of his immediate two-term predecessors at this point in their presidencies.

As with his party, previous results have indicated the president's problems. He reached career lows in both favorability and empathy - understanding the problems of "people like you" - in a pre-election ABC/Post poll. His career low job approval, 40 percent, was Oct. 12.

Obama's current job approval rating is especially weak in some groups. He's at 29 percent approval among whites, the lowest of his presidency; not only do 67 percent disapprove, but a majority, 53 percent, does so strongly. Nearly two-thirds of nonwhites, by contrast, approve of Obama's work in office.

The president's getting little help from other issues. For only the second time, numerically more Americans disapprove than approve of his handling of terrorism, 48-43 percent, an issue that long was his best. Still, it's the only one in this poll in which disapproval doesn't reach a majority.

GOP GAINS - While Obama's in a trough, the Republican Party is on a roll, with notable breadth in its advances in favorability. It's gained 17 points since October in the number of independents who see the party positively, as well as 12 points among Republicans themselves. And its favorability is up by 12 to 15 points among liberals, moderates and conservatives alike, albeit with still-sharp differences among them.

The improvement has been much needed by the GOP, which saw its fortunes fall sharply during George W. Bush's unpopular second term. The question for the party now is whether it can seize the opportunity to gain not just popularity, but personal affiliation. For Obama and the Democrats, it's whether they're looking at just a post-election stumble - or something more lasting.

In the meantime, the country is ever more firmly one in which independents predominate over both of the main political parties. That's been the case continuously in annual averages since 2009, making for the longest and strongest run of independents on record. With their looser links to partisan preferences, independents often introduce volatility into election politics - precisely what's occurred in recent cycles. As the parties try to sort themselves out, more of that instability may be the likeliest story ahead.

METHODOLOGY - This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Dec. 11-14, 2014, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,000 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points, including design effect. Partisan divisions are 26-23-41 percent, Democrats-Republicans-independents.

The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling, data collection and tabulation by Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y.