It's hard to write a column about politics these days without coming back to the issue of partisanship. It must be one of the most recurrent themes, if not the most, in American politics today. Last week, the House and Senate passed the 2010 budget without a single Republican vote, while the Pew Research Center released an analysis showing the largest partisan gap in a new president's approval rating in modern times.
President Obama's job approval rating among Democrats in last month's Pew polling was 88 percent, with just 27 percent of Republicans approving. The 61-point gap exceeds that of Presidents George W. Bush (51 points in March 2001), Bill Clinton (45 points in April 1993), George H.W. Bush (38 points in May 1989), Ronald Reagan (46 points in March 1981), Jimmy Carter (25 points in March 1977) and Richard Nixon (29 points in March 1969).* Partisanship is alive and well, even in the era of Obama.
An obvious way of measuring partisanship is in terms of the enormous gap between how die-hard Democrats and Republicans assess political leaders. In the case of President Obama, the difference was night and day in the March Pew poll. (He received a 57 percent approval rating among independents.) Obama got similar numbers in Gallup polling last week, with a 90 percent approval rating among Democrats, 27 percent among Republicans and 60 percent among independents, with a margin of error of +/- 2 percentage points.
It's important to remember that the partisanship we are seeing has two sides to it.
But right now, the most germane partisanship is found on Capitol Hill, where party cohesion is running extremely high. Not every important vote has been along party lines, but there have been few defectors for either side. It's important to remember, though, that the partisanship we are seeing has two sides to it. On one side, there are Democrats sticking with Obama at a very high rate, and on the other side, Republicans are staying with their leadership at a similarly high rate. Don't lay all of this on Republicans; both sides are holding firm.
On the GOP side, many of the moderate and swing-district members who would be likely to stray from the party lost re-election in either 2006 or 2008. The remaining Republicans, who fundamentally disagree with much of what Obama and the Democrats are trying to do, are overwhelmingly from safe and very conservative districts.
Then there is the question of those Republicans who have fairly senior committee positions, and whether too much fraternization with the enemy could cost them their ranking slot. Given the magnitude of GOP losses in the last two elections, the remaining GOP members have little tolerance for cavorting with the opposition.
On the Democratic side, one thing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., understands is arithmetic. She and the rest of the Democratic House leadership have worked hard to keep their most endangered members from having to cast ballots that would cost them re-election. They understand that some of these members represent districts that are extremely problematic, with voters that simply would not tolerate a congressman who votes down the line with the Democratic leadership. Those Democrats who needed to vote against the leadership were allowed to. The partisan advantage Democrats hold in the House is sufficient to let conservative members do what is necessary to survive.
When it comes to Obama, however, it's imperative that he keep his approval rating up among independents. With 36 percent of all adults last year identifying themselves as Democrats, he can have the enthusiastic support of every Democrat in the country and still have an approval rating that would be just a bit better than impeachment level. To keep his approval rating in the high 50s and low 60s, a level that maximizes his clout on Capitol Hill and helps him hold the political high ground, Obama needs strong support among independents as well.
In weekly compilations of Gallup's nightly tracking data, with a margin of error of +/- 2 percentage points, Obama has run at 90 percent approval among Democrats, give or take 2 points, each week since taking office. Among independents, he has been running around 60 percent each week. Among Republicans, it has varied from as low as 38 percent to as high as 41 percent, the latter just after taking office and before any meaningful policy decisions were made.
If you're going to watch any specific subgroup, watch the independents. Democrats will stick with Obama no matter what, and most Republicans are out of reach. The game lies with that key group of independent voters.
*Data prior to 1990 is from Gallup.