Behind in polls, Republicans see a silver lining in voter registrations in 3 key batteground states
By Stephanie Saul
The New York Times|
Oct 19, 2020 at 4:17 PM
With President Donald Trump trailing in public polls in nearly every major battleground state, Republicans are pointing to what they see as more promising data: Updated voter registration tallies show that Republicans have narrowed the gap with Democrats in three critical states.
As the presidential campaign heads into its final weeks, Republicans hope that gains in voter registration in the three states — Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania — and heavy turnout by those new party members might just be enough to propel Trump to a second term.
“The tremendous voter registration gain by the Republicans is the secret weapon that will make the difference for the Republicans in 2020,” said Dee Stewart, a Republican political consultant in North Carolina.
Overall, Democrats retain a lead in total registrations in those three states and hold a significant advantage in early turnout. Democrats also have picked up voters in Arizona, a state Trump won by 91,000 votes in 2016 but where Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, now leads in the polls. In New Hampshire, another battleground where public polls also show Biden in the lead, Democrats have overtaken Republicans in the registered voter count for the first time since 2010, now leading 332,000 to 310,000.
Voter registration numbers alone are not predictive about the outcome of races: Democrats had a surge in voter registrations in 2018 and went on to win the House of Representatives but lost some races in key states where they had an overall registration edge. Democrats also led Republicans in voter registration in several key states in 2016 that they ended up losing. Party registrations are driven in some states by local and congressional races as much as the presidential race, too.
The Trump-Biden contest this fall may be driven less by incremental changes in registration than by who turns out to vote, and how much they want the president to have a second term or not. And the difference of a point or two in voter registration only makes a difference in a close race.
Analyzing voter registration — and how it might affect the outcome of the looming election — is also complicated by the fact that a number of states permit same-day voter registration. In addition, at least six battleground states — Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin — do not break down voter registration by party, although Democrats point to some perceived gains there.
In Georgia, for example, of the 800,000 voters who have registered since 2018, 49% are people of color, according to the organization Fair Fight, which was founded by Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who narrowly lost the race for governor in the state in 2018.
“Those are Democratic-leaning voters,” Abrams said during an appearance last week with Jill Biden, Biden’s wife, in suburban Atlanta, where early-voting turnout is setting records.
In their optimism regarding the registration data, Republicans point first to Florida, the largest battleground state, which has 29 electoral votes.
Polls show Biden narrowly leading in the state, which Trump won by 113,000 votes in 2016, but Republicans say the increase in registered voters there has the potential to give the president an edge.
In data released last week by the Florida secretary of state’s office, Republicans had narrowed the registration chasm with Democrats to 134,000 out of 14.4 million voters — fewer than 1%. In 2016, when Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, lost the state to Trump, Democrats held a 330,000-voter advantage.
Mac Stevenson, a Republican political consultant in Florida, said the increase in registration could be viewed only as a positive sign for Republicans.
“I think it augurs that there’s going to be increased Republican turnout, but you have to balance that against the fact that everyone’s turning out more,” Stevenson said, pointing out that Democrats have historically lagged in turnout.
Aubrey Jewett, a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida, said the registration numbers in Florida reflected a significant effort by Republicans.
“They have made it clear that, despite the pandemic, they were going to still knock on doors and register voters,” he said.
At the same time, Jewett said, Democratic voter registration was probably handicapped by a protracted court battle over whether felons would have to pay outstanding fines to restore their voting rights.
“I think Democrats were somewhat hopeful that there were going to be more felons that regained voting rights and actually registered,” he said. “That ended up not being a huge boost.”
In Pennsylvania, a state Trump won by less than a percentage point in 2016, Republicans also cite gains stemming from their get-out-the-vote efforts. Republicans went door to door and set up booths at gun shows and supermarkets despite the coronavirus crisis.
“We were plowing the fields, and they weren’t out there,” said Christopher Nicholas, a longtime Republican political consultant in Pennsylvania. “The Democratic groups didn’t get back on the street until Labor Day. They were more skittish about it.”
Nicholas notes that, despite the registration numbers, population trends in the state benefit Democrats, adding that a growing number of people are registering to vote without declaring a party affiliation.
Recent figures from Pennsylvania elections officials show that Republicans have added 174,000 voters since 2016, while Democrats lost 31,000.
Democrats said they were focused on mobilizing existing voters rather than registering new ones, but they also pointed to data from TargetSmart, a Democratic polling firm, suggesting that newly registered voters in Pennsylvania were more likely to vote Democrat than Republican.
Brendan Welch, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said that Republicans' gains could be traced to voters who were previously registered as Democrats but who had voted Republican for years, and cited Republican registration increases in counties that Trump carried in 2016.
“These are mostly the kind of folks who have been registered Democrats since the days of Jimmy Carter versus Gerald Ford, but who have been voting Republican since the days of George Bush versus Al Gore,” Welch said.
A similar dynamic may be at work in North Carolina, where Republicans have narrowed the gap in registrations. Records show Democrats lost 136,000 voters since 2016 while Republicans gained 100,000, although Democrats still lead in overall registrations by 400,000, with 2.6 million Democrats and 2.2 million Republicans.
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The Democrats' overall loss in the state stems from a 2019 purge of inactive voters that disproportionately affected Democrats, said J. Michael Bitzer, a professor of political science at Catawba College in North Carolina. Some 235,000 Democrats and 146,000 Republicans were removed from the rolls.
Since 2016, Bitzer said, Democrats have shown gains by another metric — the number of newly registered voters in the state.
“The national narrative of simply taking the net numbers of registered Democrats and Republicans in this state belies the fact that among new registered voters, Democrats have, in total, held their own against Republicans,” he said.
In a state that Trump won by about 173,000 votes in 2016, every vote is important. Tim Wigginton, a spokesman for the North Carolina Republican Party, said the voter registration numbers were an overall plus for his party, particularly when combined with unaffiliated voters and registered Democrats who vote Republican in presidential races.
“I think it’s definitely a positive sign for Republicans,” he said.