Republicans and the Trump campaign — facing severe polling, staff and advertising disadvantages — might be tempted to point to party voter registration trends as a sign of life and evidence of an underrated ground effort. On Monday, a Politico analysis concluded that “at least one ray of hope for a turnaround” is that Republicans are “winning [the] registration race” in the key states of Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Iowa. It’s true that Democrats’ edge in voter registration has shrunk in those states since 2012, but much like the Trump camp’s claims of July fundraising success, there’s far more to this story.
Party registration can often be a lagging, rather than leading, indicator. As southern states, Florida and North Carolina are home to large numbers of registered Democrats who have nonetheless already been voting Republican for years. The same is true of many working-class, union Democrats in Pennsylvania and Iowa. So are pro-GOP shifts there part of an ongoing long-term cultural realignment or an emerging Trump tsunami?
Examining the trends in these states under a microscope reveals that what’s happening is more a mix of party switching, natural replacement and removal of inactive Democratic voters from the rolls than a feverish Trump effort to expand the electorate. And in the Politico piece mentioned earlier, Ben Schreckinger acknowledges that Democrats have made voter registration gains recently in Arizona, Colorado and Nevada, all formerly GOP-leaning western states with fast-growing Latino populations.
There’s no doubt Trump compelled hundreds of thousands of conservative voters to switch their registrations to Republican to vote for him in closed primaries, accelerating these voters’ exodus from formal Democratic affiliation. But do they constitute a surge of new November voters? Not so much. It’s likely that most of these party switchers were already voting Republican.
Take, for example, Dixie County, near Florida’s Panhandle, where President Obama won a measly 26 percent of the vote in 2012 and Trump took 63 percent of the GOP primary vote in March. Between November 2012 and March 2016,1 the Democratic share of registered voters in Dixie County fell from 60 percent to 52 percent, according to data from Florida’s Division of Elections office. The county’s voter rolls also fell 7 percent during that period. Trump didn’t spur new registrations, he simply accelerated Dixiecrat migration to the GOP.
In Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania — the three most important supposed “ray of hope” states mentioned in the Politico piece — ancestral Democratic registration advantages are simply coming into alignment with the modern competitive realities of each state.
Across those three states, there are 90 counties where the difference between registered Democrats and Republicans has moved 5 percentage points in the GOP’s direction between November 2012 and August 2016, according to data from each state’s election office. In 88 of the 90 counties, the new Republican share of major-party registered voters is still lower than Mitt Romney’s share of the major-party vote from 2012. In most counties, it isn’t even close.
What’s more, in 58 of these 90 GOP-trending counties, the number of total registrants fell during this period — not exactly a sign that Trump is mobilizing hordes of new supporters. Conversely, registrations have increased in many of the large, metropolitan places where Democrats and unaffiliated voters have made registration gains over the past four years, such as Orange County and Osceola County in Florida and Montgomery County in Pennsylvania.
Scratch the surface of the top-line affiliation counts in these states, and you find that the GOP’s gains are not as straightforward as they appear:
Between November 2012 and August 2016, Florida Democrats’ registration advantage fell from 535,987 voters to 259,321 voters. About 59 percent of that decline occurred during the run-up to the March 2016 presidential primary, when many voters switched to the GOP to choose between Trump and home state Sen. Marco Rubio. And about 86 percent of that decline took place in counties Mitt Romney already carried in 2012.
Helpfully, Florida also breaks down its registration tallies by race — and that breakdown tells a far different story. Since November 2012, Florida has added a net 436,484 voters to its rolls. Hispanics have accounted for 55 percent of this net growth, and overall, nonwhites have accounted for 76 percent. In other words, most voters who are truly new to Florida’s electorate belong to demographic groups that are generally hostile to Trump.
North Carolina’s Democratic registration edge has fallen from 818,443 to 641,727 since November 2012 (when Obama lost the state by 92,004 votes). But as turnout expert and University of Florida professor Michael McDonald has documented, a disproportionate share of North Carolina voters purged for inactivity since the 2008 election have been Democrats and African-Americans, a factor not attributable to any Trump effect or ground game.
Since November 2012, the nonwhite share of North Carolina’s total voters has increased a full point from 28 percent to 29 percent. And since Trump’s campaign launched in June 2015, Hispanic registration has surged 22 percent, while all other voters have increased only 5 percent. But the biggest story might be the explosion of highly coveted unaffiliated voters: their ranks have swollen by 244,151 (17 percent) since 2012.
Pennsylvania’s Democratic registration edge has shrunk from 1,135,173 to 917,192 since November 2012, but most of that is attributable to party switching: This year alone, 86,093 Democrats have switched to the GOP, presumably to vote in the Republican presidential primary. Natural replacement likely explains some of it too: In conservative Westmoreland County, for example, 61 percent of voters 75 and over are Democrats compared to 36 percent of voters under 25.
Overall, the Keystone State is a bit of a mixed bag so far. Come November, the wave of party-switching could prove meaningful in places where Clinton still has a lot of room to fall from Obama’s 2012 showings, like Wilkes-Barre and Johnstown. But usefully, Pennsylvania also breaks down new registrations by party — and among voters freshly added to the rolls in 2016, Democrats are outpacing Republicans 201,330 to 159,293.
Trump’s campaign surely hopes that new GOP registrants represent new converts to his cause rather than the same old Republican presidential voters, but so far there’s little evidence that’s the case in the biggest swing states that allow voters to register by party. Even in Iowa, where Republicans have added a net 12,865 active voters to Democrats’ 1,645 since the Iowa caucuses, local races — not national concerns — appear to be driving party-switching.
Of course, the most critical voter registration period will be the next two months, before most deadlines hit. If Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania remain on their current polling trajectory, the registration stats may not matter. But in the past two elections, Democrats have excelled in registering new supporters in the home stretch, and a strong final push by Clinton’s superior ground operation could help put close states like Iowa and Nevada away.