Republican Party loyalty in decline since 2002
The survey, by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for People and the Press, found a "dramatic shift" in political party identification since 2002, when Republicans and Democrats were at rough parity. Now, half of those surveyed identified with or leaned toward Democrats, while only 35% aligned with Republicans.
What's more, the survey found the public attitudes are drifting toward Democrats' values: Support for government aid to the disadvantaged has grown since the mid-1990s, skepticism about the use of military force has increased and support for traditional family values has edged down.
Those findings suggest that Republicans' political challenges reach beyond the unpopularity of the war in Iraq and Bush.
"Iraq has played a large part; the pushback on the Republican Party has to do with Bush, but there are other things going on here that Republicans will have to contend with," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. "There is a difference in the landscape."
A key question is whether those trends signal a broad and lasting change in the balance of power between the parties or just a mood swing that will soon pass or moderate. It remains to be seen whether Democrats can capitalize on Republicans' weakness and gain a durable position of political dominance.
"This is the beginning of a Democratic opportunity," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "The question is whether we blow it or not."
Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster, said he believed the Pew poll exaggerates his party's problems and that the situation will improve as attention shifts to choosing Bush's successor.
"Once we have new nominees to redefine the Republican and Democratic party in 2008, then we will have a far more level playing field than we have today," Ayres said.
But other Republicans believe such poll results signal a clear end to the era of GOP domination that began with President Reagan's election, continued when the party took control of Capitol Hill in 1994, and helped elect Bush twice to the White House.
"There are cycles in history where one party or one movement ascends for a while and then it sews the seeds of its own self-destruction," said Bruce Bartlett, a conservative analyst and author of a 2006 book "Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted American and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy."
"It's clear we have come to an end of a Republican conservative era," he said.
The Pew poll measured the views of 2,007 adults from Dec. 12 through Jan. 9. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points. The study of long-term shifts in political attitudes and values is part of series of periodic reports dating back to 1987.
The gap between Republican and Democratic identification, which Pew measured by counting people who are leaning toward one party or the other as well as those with a firm allegiances, is the widest spread between the parties since Pew began since the studies.
Although the gap between Republican and Democratic allegiances speaks to the GOP's current troubles, Kohut said that the shift mostly reflects the defection of independents from the party rather than a more favorable overall assessment of the Democratic Party.
The proportion expressing a positive view of Democrats has declined since January 2001 by six points, to 54%. But the public's regard for Republicans cratered during the Bush years, as the proportion holding a favorable view of the GOP dropped 15 points to 41%.
Republicans seem to be paying a price for a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the state of the country during the Bush years. Three out of 10 people said they were satisfied with the way things are going in the country--a 25-point drop in the last seven years.
While Republicans rode to political power calling for smaller government, support for government action to help the disadvantaged has risen since the GOP took control of Congress in 1994. Back then, 57% believed the government had a responsibility to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves; now 69% believe that.
On the other hand support for Bush's signature issue--a strong, proactive military posture--has waned since 2002, when 62% said that the best way to ensure peace is through military strength. Now, only 49% believe that.
On social issues, the survey found that support for some key conservative positions has edged down: The people who said they supported "old-fashioned values about family and marriage" dipped from 84% in 1994 to 76%.
Support for allowing school boards to have the right to fire homosexual teachers dropped from 39% in 1994 to 28% in 2007.