The latest voter registration update is what happens when two separate trends collide.
On the one hand, we have an exodus of moderate Republicans from the party in reaction to the January 6th attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Reporters have charted this phenomenon for weeks now in multiple states, including Pennsylvania.
At the same time, the typical post-election purge of voter rolls is taking its usual toll on Democratic registrants. As you can see in the map above, this tends to hit Dems hardest in Pennsylvania’s most populous places.
The statewide numbers illustrate this well. Back in October, the Democratic margin was 700,853. Today, however, their margin is down to 624,315. Over that time period both parties lost ground, as 4,207,190 Democrats and 3,506,337 Republicans in October became 4,074,825 Democrats and 3,450,510 Republicans in February.
The ultimate result is a bit of a mishmash. A few weeks ago, we likely would’ve seen a Democratic-friendly map, which you can still see remnants of in the light blue rural counties. A few weeks from now, it’s probable that we’ll find a mostly red, Republican-friendly map. That will be something to keep an eye on for the next update.
For now, though, let’s dig into these 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.
Right away you can see the unique situation we’re dealing with right now. Democrats fell behind in Centre County, home to Penn State, yet picked up ground in Union County, home to Bucknell University. Elsewhere the GOP continues to run up the score in rural areas.
Again it’s apparent that this is an unusual map. Counties like Bradford and Tioga don’t typically ever get colored blue in any circumstance. Most of the shifts in this region were quite small, except for Clinton and Elk where a few final ancestral Dems are moving over to the Republican Party.
President Joe Biden’s improvement over Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance in this region was critical to his victory, but we don’t see any evidence of that in these new voter registrations statistics. Not only did the GOP gain ground in Lackawanna and Luzerne counties, but they improved in Monroe as well. The silver lining for Dems is a small boost in Wayne.
That Erie County shift is the most eye-popping number of all. It’s so large, in fact, that I had to go back and make sure my math was correct. This is an example of just how jarring a registration purge can be when a county hasn’t done an update in awhile. The Northwestern corner was once a Democratic stronghold, but went for Biden by just a point in November. This result suggests we’ll see the gap between the two parties continue to narrow in the months and years ahead.
In contrast to most of the rest of the commonwealth, the South-Central region has been a fruitful area for Democrats the past few years. You can see this in Cumberland County, where the Harrisburg suburbs are slowly turning the county blue. Conversely, those numbers in Lancaster and York counties are encouraging for Republicans who depend on the two counties to provide their largest pluralities in statewide races.
The collar counties carried Biden to victory in Pennsylvania, and despite the post-election adjustments, still hold some promising signs for Democrats. The gains in Bucks and Chester counties, for example, should be reassuring. The losses in the Lehigh Valley, however, could be a cause for concern. Finally, while that Philly number may seem stunning, it’s not uncommon for the city to see large swings whenever the rolls are refurbished.
The Southwest remains the most rewarding region for the PA Republican Party. As late as 2015, Cambria, Greene, Lawrence, Washington and Westmoreland counties were all Democratic counties. At this rate, Fayette and Beaver counties will join them by the end of 2021. Even Allegheny County saw GOP gains thanks to the post-election update.
It’s way too early to draw conclusions from these numbers, yet I will hazard to make two. First, the Jan. 6 riot did harm Republican registration in Pennsylvania, and second, the cumulative effect of that exodus was still quite small.
A good way to view this is to keep in mind that Donald Trump’s 2016 margin of victory was just 44,292 votes, while Biden’s 2020 margin of victory was 81,660 votes. So our voter registration stats, and the current 624,315-voter advantage Democrats hold, aren’t as reflective of the electorate as we might expect them to be.
With ancestral Applacahian Dems still slowly leaving the party, I expect we’ll continue to see gradual GOP growth for the foreseeable future. The key is to watch how strong this movement remains, whether it begins to recede and, if it does, where that reversion is taking place. So begins a new election cycle.
Correspondent Nick Field covers Philadelphia and its suburbs for the Capital-Star. Follow him on Twitter @Nick_Field90.