Democrats in Pennsylvania have been busy touting a voter registration number: 19,000. It is the reported number of voters who have left the Republican Party since the horrifying events of January 6. However, a closer examination of voter habits and registration in the commonwealth shows a less encouraging picture for the Democratic party, which saw little down ballot success in 2020.
Since voters went to the polls in November 2016, the Democratic voter registration edge has shrunk by 294,512 voters. To put that into perspective, the voter registration advantage Democrats enjoyed in 2016 has been reduced by nearly one-third, from 916,274 to 621,762 voters. While Joe Biden did win Pennsylvania, a statewide Democrat incumbent lost for the first time in over 20 years – former Treasurer Joe Toreslla. A Republican also captured the open Auditor General seat, all incumbent Republican Congressmen went back to Washington, the State Senate remained unchanged, and the State House saw its Republican majority grow by three seats. This was in no small part due to years of Republican voter registration gains.
Since voters went to the polls in November 2016, the Democratic voter registration edge has shrunk by 294,512 voters. To put that into perspective, the voter registration advantage Democrats enjoyed in 2016 has been reduced by nearly one-third, from 916,274 to 621,762 voters.
There are many reasons for this Republican shift, not the least of which is former President Trump. Trump’s appeal to working class, often union, Democrats no doubt helped fuel the registration shifts, especially in Western Pennsylvania. Additionally, the Republican 2020 grassroots effort was vastly larger than the Democrat’s, which was nearly non-existent. Republican campaigns and candidates from President on down knocked doors and sought out voters mask to mask. It is also worth noting that many of the folks who registered to vote for President Obama in 2008, but have not voted since, are coming off the voter rolls because of an “inactive” status.
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Further reason for discouragement among Democrats is that their new favorite number — 19,000 — isn’t what they think it is. Since the start of 2021, 6,997 voters have also left the Democratic Party. This number blunts the cumulative effect of the 18,961 voters who’ve left the Republican Party. And the Democrats who are walking away are registering Republican at a clip of 62%, whereas merely 45% of former Republicans registered Democratic.
In the Republican quest to flip the voter registration numbers, any losses hurt the overall effort. However, from 2016 to 2020, 419,142 Democrats left their party, and 70 percent, or 293,528, flipped Republican. During the same stretch, Republicans lost a little more than half that number, 245,180 voters, with 68 percent, or 166,804, flipping Democrat.
Since the start of 2021, 6,997 voters have also left the Democratic Party. This number blunts the cumulative effect of the 18,961 voters who’ve left the Republican Party.
Voter registration data is just one of many ways to understand political shifts, but it is a strong one. Pennsylvania voters, after years of a paper option only, are now able to register or change their voter registration online. While the process is easier, it still takes effort. And a shift of 19,000 voters sends a message, especially when President Biden’s margin of victory was 80,555 votes. But, to tout that number in a vacuum is to leave out many other consequential facts.
Note: All numbers are from the PA Department of State update on 2/16/20
Charlie O’Neill has spent over a decade working in politics, public policy, and communications.