It All Depends on the Meaning of Party Identification

February 9, 2010 · 10:32 AM EST

I’ll admit it. I like numbers.

Whether the number is a WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) when evaluating a baseball pitcher, a price-to-earnings ratio when evaluating a stock or a job approval when considering an incumbent’s re-election prospects, I rely on numbers to allow me to make comparisons and, often, projections for the future.

But some numbers don’t tell the whole story, even when they come from one of the most prestigious and widely cited public opinion organizations in the world, Gallup.

About a week ago, Gallup released a report on party identification in the states. Nationally, the respected polling firm found Democrats with an 8-point advantage, 49 percent to 41 percent, down from a 12-point advantage in 2008.

The change in attitudes from 2008 to 2009 isn’t surprising, since the GOP probably bottomed out with President Barack Obama’s election. Still, Gallup’s aggregate data are useful, especially when examining changes in party identification over a long period of time.

The troubling part of the report, “Party ID: Despite GOP Gains, Most States Remain Blue,” came for me when Gallup characterized the strength of the two major political parties in each of the 50 states, too often leading readers to some misleading conclusions.

Gallup assigned states to one of five categories — Strong Democrat, Lean Democrat, Competitive, Lean Republican, Strong Republican — based on the self-identified partisanship of more than 350,000 adults nationwide.

The states that have become partisan bastions — for example, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maryland on the Democratic side, and Wyoming, Utah and Idaho for the GOP — aren’t surprising. Other characterizations are, well, bizarre.

Gallup found self-identification in South Carolina at 42.8 percent Democratic and 42.3 percent Republican, for a Democratic advantage of one-half of 1 point. That makes the Palmetto State “competitive” according to Gallup’s system of classification.

That may indeed be the way people in South Carolina identify themselves by party, but it isn’t the way they vote. The state has two GOP Senators, a Republican governor and four Republican Congressmen, compared with two Democrats. The last Democratic nominee for president to carry the state was Jimmy Carter in 1976 (before most of the South had realigned), and in 2008, Republicans won large majorities in both chambers of the South Carolina Legislature.

Classifying South Carolina as “competitive” on the basis of respondents’ party self- identification suggests that party identification is meaningless.

Of course, South Carolina could be a fluke in the Gallup study. But it isn’t.

According to Gallup, Democrats have an 8-point advantage in Ohio, 48 percent Democrat to 39.7 percent Republican, making the state “Solid Democrat” according to the organization’s criteria.

Any system that classifies the Buckeye State as “solidly Democratic” has some internal problems.

Ohio went for Democrat Barack Obama 52 percent to 47 percent last time, and its governor, Ted Strickland, is a Democrat. But each party has one of the state’s U.S. Senate seats, and the U.S. House delegation is an almost even 8 Republicans and 10 Democrats. Democrats hold a narrow edge in the state House (53 to 46), while Republicans hold a more comfortable 21-12 advantage in the state Senate.

Given the difficulty that Republicans have had both nationally and in the state over the past couple of election cycles, it seems pretty clear that the state is extremely competitive.

Gallup categorizes Missouri as “Solid Democrat” because 46.8 percent of Missouri adults identify with the Democratic Party while only 37.3 percent identify with the GOP.

Like Ohio, Missouri has one U.S. Senator from each party and a Democratic governor. But five of its nine U.S. House seats are occupied by Republicans, and the GOP won more than two-thirds of the seats in the state Senate. Republicans also control the Missouri House, 89-74.

Missouri, of course, was a squeaker in the 2008 presidential contest, with Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) nipping Democrat Obama. Does that sound like the profile of a solidly Democratic state?

I won’t go in detail through the other states mischaracterized — Florida and Kentucky do not lean Democratic, while Georgia and the two Dakotas are more Republican behaviorally than the “competitive” category to which Gallup assigns them — but you get the picture.

Gallup wasn’t helped with the timing of its report. With recent national and state polls showing Democrats losing ground, including on the Congressional ballot for 2010, Gallup’s report concluded, “Despite the modest shift toward a decreased affiliation with the Democratic party … the United States remained a Democratically oriented nation last year.”

I’m certainly not questioning Gallup’s methodology, since unlike some who call themselves pollsters, Gallup knows what it is doing.

Still, the Gallup report reminds us of the limits of measuring partisan self-identification and the limits of polling itself. What matters isn’t what people tell pollsters; it’s what they actually think and do.