The voter registration math: should Democrats be worried?

Joe Biden isn't just leading in national polls, he is leading in most swing states by margins outside the margin of error. Not only do the leads seem consistent, the massive early voting numbers among Democrats appear to confirm that the apathy and complacency that put Donald Trump in the White House in 2016 is being replaced by massive enthusiasm for Democrats in 2020.

And yet, Democrats are afraid to hope after having it all crushed in 2016.

I addressed the polling picture - how it's different from 2016 - in a previous post. Today, I want to address another palpable and real fear on the left: registration numbers. In several publications, a red alert has been sent up, showing that Republicans have registered far more voters in important battleground states than Democrats since the end of the primary season.

The most frequently cited data comes from the Cook Political Report, where David Wasserman puts a fine point on new Republican registrations in Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania between that state's primary and end of September swamping those state's new Democratic registrations in the same period.

In Florida, according to Wasserman's data, Republicans have added about 196,000 voters, compared to just about 98,000 new Democrats being added to the rolls since the Florida primary. In Pennsylvania, that advantage is 136,000 to 58,000, and in North Carolina, 84,000 to 38,000. Wasserman credits a better Republican ground game for these advantages and notes that the numbers during similar periods were much closer in 2016.

I do not dispute the data, but the prevailing explanations for these numbers from political observers, including Wasserman and New York Times' Thomas Edsall, leave quite a bit to be desired. Rather than the flashing red signs they see, allow me to present an alternative narrative that I believe to be more grounded in context. In doing so, I will consider the differences in the timeframe between the two election cycles, party re-registration trends that do not affect voting patterns, and the special characteristics of recently registered independent voters.

First, let's look at the specific timeframe. Note the emphasis on the period between the end of the primary and (roughly) present time. This year, there was essentially no Republican primary, as Trump basically ran unopposed, and Republicans even canceled primaries in multiple states. Democrats, however, had a competitive primary in 2020, and so it would make sense that most of our registrations would tick up during the primary, not after. In 2016, both parties had robust primaries, and therefore the side-by-side post primary registration numbers made more sense.

The data, in fact, bear this out. According to data from TargetSmart reported by NBC, since 2016 and through the 2020 primary season, new Democratic registration outpaced new Republican registration in all three of the above-mentioned states: in Florida by 60,000, in Pennsylvania by 133,000 and in North Carolina by 56,000.

Second, a trend that Donald Trump has accelerated nationwide is the formal re-registration into the Republican camp of ultraconservative Democrats who had always voted for Republican tickets anyway. Mostly right-wing (often southern) Democrats for whom being a Democrat was more of a tradition from the Dixiecrat era, have been formally switching their party registration. This increases the GOP's registration totals, but does not add any additional votes to their column.

Florida is a great illustrative example of this instance. Between 2016 and the latest available 2020 data, Florida added a net of about 1 million voters. It also appears that in Florida, Republicans added a net 500,000 voters and Democrats a net of just about 300,000. At first glance, that may appear to show that Democrats have fallen behind in the new voter race by 200,000, a huge margin in a state known for deciding elections by razer-thin margins.

But in the same period, Florida also added 400,000 minor party and non-affiliated voters. Add all the new registration numbers (R=500K, D=300K, others=400K) and it totals 1.2 million voters, not the 1 million net add of the overall numbers.

That means there are at least 200,000 new registrants who changed their party registration (and likely more, since there are probably more than a few previously registered voters who moved out of state or passed away and others who became newly eligible or moved into the state). It is easily possible that 200,000 of the half a million "new" Republicans in Florida are actually former Florida Democrats who never actually voted for Democrats and that the Florida GOP's "real" gain is 300,000 voters net, about the same as the Democrats in the state. We will likely never know exactly what this party-switching-but-not-vote-switching figure is, but suffice it to say the "net" registration numbers can be deceiving.

Counterintuitively, this realignment may actually be good news for Democrats, because it is likely to diminish the 'silent' Trump voter error in polls.. The more people formally re-align, the less likely they are to keep their voting preferences hidden. A newly minted Republican who used to be a Democrat has no reason to hide their support for Donald Trump, especially since it's likely their support for Trump is a key reason for their party switch. Accordingly, as these realignments accelerate, the risk of undercounting "silent" Trump voters in polls and the potential resulting error gets smaller.

Finally, we must consider the unique characteristics of 2020 when looking at the rise in unaffiliated voter registration. The increase in unaffiliated voters is swelling throughout the country, and although traditionally, independent voters roughly split down the middle, that may not be the case this year. Spikes in unaffiliated voter registrations occurred during two periods and tracked with spikes in Democratic registrations: during the March primaries and at the large Black Lives Matter demonstrations during the summer. Many states allow unaffiliated voters to choose the ballot of either party during a presidential primary, and most this time around chose the Democratic ballot since no contested Republican primary was held. And it's difficult to imagine that independents registered at large BLM protests are eager to cast a ballot for Donald Trump. Republicans did not see a corresponding spike in registration compared to Democrats and unaffiliated voters during the summer.

As mentioned at the beginning of this explanation, I have attempted to provide a better understanding of the context for the numbers that have raised alarm. In the context I have considered, I see less cause for alarm.

I see reason to hope.

Nevertheless, Democrats cannot get too comfortable. I firmly believe Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are well-positioned, and that the data back this up. But this race isn't over until the last vote has been counted. Until then, while we can take comfort in gaining better understanding of the numbers we are bombarded with consumers of news every day, we must keep fighting.

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