This is it. We’ve now passed the deadline to register to vote in the 2020 presidential election and Pennsylvania Republicans are peaking at the right time again.
The Republicans made substantial gains in 2015 and 2016 ahead of Donald Trump’s surprise victory, only for the Pennsylvania Democrats to bounce back over the past four years. Since last spring’s primary, though, Republican registrations have steadily grown.
For instance, back in May the Democratic margin statewide was 803,427. As of the Oct. 19 deadline, it’s been reduced to 700,853. The grand total of 9,016,163 registered voters consists of 4,207,190 Democrats, 3,506,337 Republicans and 1,302,636 others.
The numbers below indicate the shifts since my last update on Aug. 31. Now, let’s dig into the numbers!
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 time period while D+500 indicates the opposite.
You’ll see here first a phenomenon that took place across the commonwealth, as Republicans experienced a late surge in rural counties. I’ll go more in-depth on this below, but remember to keep your eye on it. It also appears that Penn State’s COVID struggles may prevent the usual Democratic victory in Centre Country.
Once again, the GOP is running up the margins in rural Pennsylvania. Lycoming County, home to Williamsport, is a great example of this. These changes are often swift and substantial. Take Elk County, which actually voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but where Clinton finished with less than 27 percent in 2016.
The only good news for Democrats here is that they didn’t lose much comparatively in Lackawanna. Scranton-born Joe Biden will need to win there in part to compensate for the trend in Luzerne County, one of the most frequently chronicled Obama/Trump counties in the nation.
Dave Wasserman, one of the best election analysts out there, recently identified Erie Counties as one of America’s ten bellwethers counties. This Obama/Trump county has supported the statewide winner in seven straight presidential contests and I’d be shocked if that streak isn’t extended to eight.
One step forward, two steps back for the Democrats here. Dauphin shows itself to be true blue as it remains one of the few places that resisted the red wave. In York and Lancaster, however, Republicans put up massive numbers. This is a bit surprising because Lancaster and Cumberland counties were among the areas Democrats saw encouraging trends until the last few months. They’ll have to hope the actual results reflect those earlier movements.
If you scrolled down here to see if the Dems were at least able to run up the score in southeastern Pennsylvania, you may be disappointed since it was a bit of a mixed bag.
The party did finally significantly add to their advantage in Philly, where they hope to get record turnout. Despite decent gains in Delaware and Montgomery counties, though, the results in Chester and Bucks counties are worrying. Biden needs margins in the collar counties on par with what Governor Tom Wolf and U.S. Sen.Bob Casey got in 2018. Also be sure to watch Northampton closely, as it rivals Erie as a statewide bellwether.
Carrying Southwest PA is the heart of Donald Trump’s strategy to stay in the White House. Except for Pittsburgh, the GOP continues to rack up impressive numbers here. In fact, since my last update, registered Republicans overtook registered Democrats in both Cambria and Greene Counties. Joe Biden embarked a post-debate train tour to try and stem the exodus of ancestral Appalachia Dems. The train made several stops in Westmoreland, but doesn’t appear to have worked.
I can hear you asking, “Well Nick, what does this all mean?” My unsatisfactory answer is probably nothing — but perhaps everything.
After the shock of 2016, we’re all intensely attuned to any signs that 2020 could produce a repeat result. To be fair, there are several similarities. Once again, polls show Trump consistently trailing in the Keystone State while voter registration trends suggest a quiet groundswell of support.
Even the FiveThirtyEight averages from then and now are strikingly similar. On October 20, 2016 the site had Clinton with a 50.5 percent to 43.1 percent lead over Trump, giving her an 88.8 percent chance at victory. On October 20, 2020 they have Biden with a 50.6 percent to 44.2 percent advantage on Trump and an 87 percent chance of victory.
Yet there are important differences between 2016 and 2020. The most obvious is that everyone, from pollsters to experts to casual cable TV watchers, is on the lookout for another potential surprise. Moreover Biden is much more popular with Americans than Clinton was, not to mention that there is less support now for third-party candidates. It’s also worth pointing out that Clinton’s numbers dipped after the Comey letter was released. FiveThirtyEight’s final 2016 PA average had Clinton at 48.9 percent to Trump’s 45.2 percent.
Therefore, it’s not a fait accompli that these voter registrations shifts are evidence of a substantial number of new Trump voters emerging in Pennsylvania. It’s quite possible that ancestral Democrats who voted for Trump in 2016 are only just now embracing their new party identity as Republicans.
As for Election Night, I’ll be watching the southeastern counties: Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery. Biden should aim for at least 55% in the first two and 60% or more in the last two. At a time when Pennsylvania is the favorite to be the tipping point state, it may well come down to us. So make sure you vote.
Correspondent Nick Field covers the Philadelphia suburbs for the Capital-Star. Follow him on Twitter @Nick_Field90.