Does the GOP Voter Registration Advantage Matter?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Republicans are out-registering Democrats in Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, but that may not suggest momentum on Election Day.
By Nick Fouriezos
When Matt Peters registered to vote and picked Donald Trump in 2016, it was the 61-year-old’s first time voting in any election. Now the Pennsylvanian is volunteering at the Republican field office in Butler County, helping process what he says has been a flood of new registrations to the Republican Party in the Pittsburgh exurb. “I don’t think the polls are being honest,” Peters says. “If you look at the amount of people who are re-registering as Republicans, from Democrats or independents? That will tell you what is going to happen this time. I think the Democrats are going to be blindsided.”
That mantra is common among Republicans in swing states across the nation: Ignore Trump’s bad polls, pay attention to the registration swing. And it is true that in certain places Republicans are seeing significant voter registration increases since 2016.
- In Pennsylvania, the GOP has added 241,083 voters (+7.3%) while Democrats have lost 11,702 (-0.2%).
- In North Carolina, the GOP has added 140,992 (+6.8%) voters while Democrats have lost 107,702 (-3.9%).
- In Florida, the GOP has added 444,922 (+9.7%) voters while Democrats have gained 298,090 (+6%).
Those Republican registration gains have allowed the GOP to narrow the gap even though Democrats still outnumber Republicans in each of those three states. However, the OZY/0ptimus forecast prediction model — which crunches polls, demographic data, historical trends, candidate traits and more — has both North Carolina and Florida as “lean Democrat” states in the presidential race, with Pennsylvania ranking as a “likely Democrat” win. Could registrations be a window into momentum that isn’t showing up in the polls?
A large portion of those newly registered Republicans are basically conservative voters.
Scott Tranter, founder of the data firm 0ptimus
Scott Tranter, a Republican strategist and founder of the data firm 0ptimus, isn’t so sure, pointing out that many blue-collar Democrats vote red in presidential races already — a trend that started decades ago and continued through 2016. The GOP has also made more of an effort to push in-person registration drives, while Democrats have hung back, given fears of spreading COVID-19. “There are some new registrations, but a large portion of those newly registered Republicans are basically conservative voters,” Tranter says. That sentiment is echoed by Brendan Welch, the communications director for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. “It’s not something we’re really worried about,” Welch says, pointing out that if party registration was predictive, then the Democrats, who have a nearly 687,000-voter advantage, would “never lose” a statewide election. “Somebody who registers to vote in their 20s, their views change over time. It’s a lagging indicator.”
Pennsylvania is a particularly good example of the questionable worth of tracking registrations. Westmoreland County, outside Pittsburgh, hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since Bill Clinton in 1996 and overwhelmingly supported Trump in 2016. However, it took until May 2019 for Republican registrations to eclipse Democrats. “I didn’t like the way the country was going,” says Kasia Ferry, a 69-year-old from small-town Meadville, Pennsylvania, who voted for Trump and says she was a registered Democrat her whole life but stopped voting for them in the 1980s and only recently switched her party registration.
If any information can be gleaned from the registration shifts in Pennsylvania, it’s the acceleration of white, working-class “Reagan Democrats” backing Trump even as the once-red suburbs shift further toward the Democratic Party. Real attitude shifts are taking places in those regions, areas like Luzerne County, which voted for Obama twice before backing Trump by a 20 percentage point margin over Hillary Clinton. Since 2016, Republicans have narrowed their registration disadvantage there from nearly 34,000 to 20,000 voters. Last year, it elected a Republican majority county council for the first time. “Enthusiasm for the Republican Party has skyrocketed,” says Justin Behrens, chair of the Luzerne County GOP. However, Democrats say they are seeing the reverse shift from registered Republicans backing Democratic candidates in the suburbs. “A lot of those folks — older, moderate Republicans — are looking at Trump and saying he is unacceptable for what the party values,” says Jim Wertz, chair of the Erie Democratic Party.
The same skepticism of registration numbers applies in states where Democrats have out-gained Republicans since 2016, such as Ohio and Arizona. “When it come down to why Ohio continues to be a swing state, it’s quite frankly because people will split tickets,” says state House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, a Democrat. That’s particularly true of young voters, who surveys show often don’t pick a party at all. While Kailynn Anderson, of Youngstown, Ohio, did register as a Democrat to cast her first vote for Hillary Clinton four years ago, she finds herself becoming more conservative as she’s about to turn 22. “I’m definitely voting for Trump this time.”