By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Republican Party has made big gains among white voters, particularly younger and poorer ones, since Democrat Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, according to a survey released on Friday.
Fifty-two percent of white voters identified themselves as Republicans compared with 39 percent who called themselves Democrats in the survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. The rest said they were independents.
In 2008, 46 percent of white voters said they were Republicans versus 44 percent for Democrats.
The survey also showed Republicans losing ground among Hispanic voters and picking up slightly among black voters since 2008.
The findings pose a challenge to Obama as he seeks re-election next year. Republicans made big gains in the U.S. Congress and state governments in the 2010 mid-term elections and are attempting to deny Obama a second term as president.
"There was a large enthusiasm gap in 2010, with Republicans far more enthusiastic and interested in the election," said Leah Christian, a senior researcher at the Pew Center who worked on the report.
"A lot of what we're seeing in the data is a continuation of where we were in 2010," she said.
Christian said the researchers had not detected evidence that Obama's race had anything to do with Republicans picking up more support among white voters. Obama is the first black U.S. president.
Overall, 43 percent of Americans described themselves as Republicans and 47 percent as Democrats in the survey, compared to 39 percent who labeled themselves Republicans and 51 percent as Democrats in 2008.
Republicans lost ground among Hispanics. The poll found that 22 percent of Hispanics called themselves Republicans, compared to 28 percent in 2008.
Black voter identification with the Republicans has edged up by 2 percentage points to 8 percent since 2008, the poll found. Eighty-six percent of black voters called themselves Democrats, compared to 88 percent in 2008.
Young voters played a huge part in Obama's 2008 victory.
But the party's 7 percentage point advantage among whites under age 30 in 2008 has flipped to an 11 percentage point Republican advantage now, the poll found.
There was a big shift among whites making less then $30,000 per year, a group Christian said had favored Hillary Clinton early in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary fight, and so might be less strongly in favor of Obama.
In 2008, 37 percent of them said they were Republicans, and 52 percent identified as Democrats. Those numbers now are 47 percent Republican and 43 percent Democratic.
The report was based on a compilation of 223 surveys and about 300,000 interviews among registered voters conducted by the Pew Research Center from January 1990 to June 2011.
(Editing by Will Dunham)