Partisan voter registration numbers in context

Whenever I hear about changing voter registration numbers– especially in the South– I don’t get too worked up about it, because voter registration decidedly does not equal party identification.  When I see headlines about Democrats losing net voter registration in Southern states, I’ve been working under the assumption that this is simply because now there are finally fewer people who are registered D, but almost always vote R at the federal level.  Well, Nate Cohn goes to the data and finds that this is decidedly, in fact, the case:

With Donald J. Trump behind in the polls, one apparent sign of hope for Republicans is the dwindling Democratic advantage in voter registration, particularly in battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania.

But a closer look, using data from state officials and from L2, a nonpartisan voter file vendor, and Catalist, a Democratic data firm, shows far more favorable trends for the Democratic Party.

Democrats are actually registering more new voters than Republicans. In addition, more new voters are registering as independents. These voters are far younger and more diverse than the electorate as a whole, and they appear to lean Democratic. And although the total number of registered Democrats is falling, many of the voters switching parties probably have not voted Democratic in a presidential election in a long time — their party registration is finally catching up with how they actually vote.  [emphasis mine]

The rest is just details.  Worth reading, but that paragraph pretty much nails the key points.  That said, some more interesting details:

Democrats in Name Only

The huge attrition of registered Democrats — either through switching or from voter roll purges — might seem like an indicator of weakness for the party.

But there’s a catch: Many of these voters’ decisions to change parties have come long after the change in how they vote.

Over the last few decades, the Democratic coalition has fundamentally shifted, from a white working-class party with strength in Appalachia and other parts of the South, to a party with growing strength in affluent and ethnically diverse areas.

These changes, though, don’t show up so quickly in voter registration. Many people who registered as Democrats back in the era of the Solid South remain nominal Democrats today. In fact, the entire Democratic voter registration advantage in Florida comes from these voters…

Many registered Democrats have long voted Republican in presidential elections. You can see it at the state level, in places like Kentucky and West Virginia, where Democrats still have a considerable voter registration edge. You can see it in particular regions of Florida and Pennsylvania where Democrats have huge advantages in voter registration — but where Mitt Romney easily won in 2012.

These Democrats-in-name-only are driving the Democratic decline in voter registration, either by switching to the Republican Party or — remember, this is an older group of voters — by leaving the voter rolls because of death. Many were already voting Republican by 2012, so there isn’t much reason to think that this decline indicates an additional loss in Democratic strength.

The biggest shifts are occurring in the places where it’s most obvious that registered Democrats have been voting Republican in presidential elections.

Yes, of course, registration and partisanship are related, but they are not the same thing.  And in the South, it can downright confuse the issue.  As these changes filter (slowly) through, they, we can expect in time for there increasingly be much less of a disjunction between partisanship and registration.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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