Key: Navy – D+5,000 or more, Blue – D+1,001 to D+4,999, Light Skyblue – D+1 to D+1,000. Light Salmon – R+1 to R+1,000, Red – R+1,001 to R+4,999, Maroon – R+5,000 or more (Map by Nick Field via Dave’s Redistricting).
Much can change in just five months. During my last voter registration update in May, Democrats were panicking about a red wave coming in November. Today, well, Democrats are still definitely nervous, but some cautious optimism persists too.
Even now, despite indications that Republicans are again on the upswing, Democrats are still favored to hold the Senate. In fact, the Pennsylvania contest between John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz is shaping up to be the most pivotal Senate race in the country.
So what can the voter registration numbers tell us about not only that race, but the gubernatorial contest and the national environment as well? I’ll get to that, but first, let’s take a glance at the big picture.
Five months ago, Democrats held a 553,827-voter margin over Republicans, an advantage that sits at 549,288 voters today. That’s actually a pretty good result for Dems, who tend to lose far more over such a span of time. Apparently, interest in the midterms drove an overall boost in total registration, as we now sit at 8,872,968 voters, including 4,046,645 Democrats and 3,497,357 Republicans.
The best way to find out what these results can tell us about Tuesday, though, is to do what I usually do: break them down by region. So without further ado, let’s dive in.
A quick note: I explore our changing voter trends by tracking the gains one party accumulated in registrations over the other party. For example, R+500 means that the Republican Party gained a net 500 more registered voters in that county than the Democratic Party did over this period, while D+500 indicates the opposite.
Every fall, Democrats benefit from an influx of college students to central Pennsylvania. Most prominently, there’s the growth in Centre County, home to Penn State, and in neighboring Union County, which hosts Bucknell University. The party is betting that enough young voters are energized by the stakes of the midterms to move the needle statewide.
Democrats continue to see erosion in the once solidly blue Scranton/Wilkes-Barre corridor. In the Trump era, Republicans have made substantial gains in Lackawanna and Luzerne, making a strong performance here a necessity for Oz and GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano. On the other hand, Luzerne County was actually the one county that Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro was able to flip between his 2016 and 2020 runs for state attorney general, so victory there is very much still possible for him.
Fetterman is going to hate these Erie numbers. The lakeside county holds a special place in the Democratic Senate nominee’s heart, as he’s repeatedly pointed to the Obama-Trump-Biden county as a bellwether for the commonwealth. He’ll undoubtedly be watching Erie as the returns roll in on Tuesday night. It’s tough to imagine Fetterman winning without Erie in his corner.
As I’ve noted before, Democrats have been quietly growing their support in this region over the past few years, particularly in the Harrisburg area. That expansion is even occurring across the Susquehanna in Cumberland County, a county Fetterman and especially Shapiro should look to carry. As for the two most populous counties in the region, Democrats continue to eat away at Republican margins in Lancaster County, while York County remains a reliable Big Red Machine.
If Fetterman is going to emerge victorious on Tuesday night, he’ll need to post massive margins here, especially in Philadelphia and its collar counties. Conversely, the Oz campaign has made eating into Fetterman’s lead here central to their own strategy. So these gains in Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery are exceptionally encouraging for Fetterman.
Not to be overlooked, of course, are the Lehigh Valley trio, where many of Pennsylvania’s Hispanic voters reside. While Berks continues to trend towards the GOP, and Lehigh becomes a reliable blue county, Northampton evolves into a bellwether Obama-Trump-Biden county. In fact, I’d expect whoever wins Northampton will ultimately win the Senate race.
Back in 2020, then-candidate Joe Biden posted the third-highest margin of victory for a Democratic presidential nominee in the history of Allegheny County, trailing only the blowouts for Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Fetterman, who lives in the Pittsburgh suburb of Braddock, will try to recapture some of that magic in his adopted home county.
Biden needed that type of performance in Allegheny, of course, because he got blown out in the hills of Appalachia, where ancestral Democrats turned against the party long ago. Fetterman has made winning back these types of voters an integral part of his political brand, but at this late date it’s unclear if he’ll be any more successful than Biden was.
Fetterman’s 2022 campaign slogan is ‘Every County. Every Vote’, an illustration of his firm belief that winning in Pennsylvania is all a manner of margins. Specifically, Fetterman bet that he could outperform his fellow Democrats in rural areas. For instance, he would visit these rural counties during the summer and pointedly note that he received more votes there in his Democratic primary than Oz had in the Republican primary.
Over the course of the fall, however, polls found these voters returning to Oz; and the aforementioned registration stats suggest that the larger trends remain too strong. As a result, instead of trying to swim upstream in rural areas, Fetterman now needs to hold as many urban and suburban votes as possible.
In the end, this race comes down to Philadelphia’s suburban collar counties. To show why, a comparison of Biden’s 2020 Pennsylvania victory to U.S. Sen. Bob Casey’s, D-Pa., 2018 landslide re-election.
Casey beat Republican Lou Barletta by 13 percent that year (657,589 margin statewide) and came out ahead in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties by 289,614 votes. Meanwhile, Biden won Pennsylvania by just 1.3 percent (80,555 margin statewide) while running up a 293,034-vote advantage in those four counties.
At this point, a Casey-like victory isn’t a possibility for Fetterman. He’ll have to go the Biden route. Luckily for him, gubernatorial nominee Shapiro appears poised to post a big margin there in his race (perhaps he’ll beat Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2018 margin of 334,410) at the top of the ballot.
Ultimately, this latest voter registration update confirms what many observers already suspected. Tuesday is set to be an uphill battle for Democrats, but not a hopeless one.
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