By itself, the state of the economy is enough to guarantee a close election, and every national survey during the past two weeks has put Obama and Romney in a statistical tie. Now another key factor points in the same direction—the shifting balance between the political parties. This matters because party preferences and voting patterns are more closely linked today than they have been in several generations—and two recent in-depth surveys of the party system document that a clean Democratic victory, of the sort the party enjoyed in 2008, is exceedingly unlikely. The surging Democratic tide of four years ago has ebbed, exposing a partisan shoreline that more closely resembles what prevailed in 2004.
Let’s begin with the Gallup poll released on August 29. At this time four years ago, 54 percent of registered voters had a favorable view of the Democratic Party, versus 39 percent with an unfavorable view. Republicans trailed badly, with 41 percent favorable and 51 percent unfavorable.
Not that much has changed for Republicans since then. Today, their favorable rating stands at 44 percent, and unfavorable at 50. The big shift has come for Democrats, whose edge over Republicans has completely disappeared. Only 43 percent of registered voters have a favorable view of the Democratic Party (down 13 points), while 52 percent have an unfavorable view (up 13 points). The erosion has been especially severe among men (15 points), whites (17 points), voters 35 to 54 years old (17 points), and Independents (12 points). Only nonwhite voters are more favorably inclined toward the Democratic Party than they were four years ago. And while a successful convention can provide a boost, history suggests that any such improvement in public perceptions of a political party is likely to disappear by Election Day.