In the past couple of weeks, key battleground states like Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania have received a lot of attention because Republicans have seen a spike in voter registration numbers. This is often cited as a counterpoint to Joe Biden’s sizable lead over President Trump in the polls, as all these Republican registrations must be a sign of support for Trump that the polls are missing, right?
Well, it’s hard to say what’s happening exactly. Dave Wasserman, the House editor for The Cook Political Report and an NBC News contributor, found in early October that Republicans had made much larger gains in voter registration than Democrats in key states since the presidential primaries earlier this year, perhaps in part due to Republicans’ efforts to knock on doors and Democrats’ reluctance to do the same.
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But the problem is party registration numbers can be a hard way to get a read on what’s happening in the election. Like early voting numbers, there are all kinds of pitfalls in how you should think about this data. Here are three of the biggest problems:
Party registration is often a lagging indicator
A voter’s party registration is a strong indicator of who they’ll support, but it’s not a guarantee. In fact, many voters registered with one party have actually been voting for the other party in recent elections but haven’t necessarily switched their registration to reflect the party they actually support.
Take Pennsylvania, for example. The once-Democratic southwestern part has shifted sharply toward the GOP over the past couple of decades. However, party registration figures haven’t necessarily reflected that movement as much as you might expect. For instance, Greene County along the West Virginia border voted for Trump by 40 percentage points in 2016, yet preelection registration figures1 show that party identification is split almost evenly, with registered Republicans and Democrats each making up 45 percent of the county’s voters.
Part of what’s going on is that many older voters in that region are still registered as Democrats, even if they back Republicans for most federal offices. Conversely, the suburban counties around Philadelphia in the eastern part of the state used to form the base of the state Republican Party, but even though that area has moved toward the Democrats in recent elections, some Democratic-leaning voters haven’t changed their party registration. In other words, big shifts in party registration sometimes tell us something we already know, and aren’t a signal of a new shift in attitudes.
Registration surges follow the campaign calendar
The election calendar also influences party registration trends, as key dates and campaign events drive interest in participation. For instance, a presidential primary or the registration deadline ahead of the general election can spark a flood of registrations. But sometimes this can create a disproportionate number of registrations from one party.
Consider the 2020 presidential primary. Democrats had a competitive race, which drove interest in voting in 2019 and early in 2020 among Democrats and voters who wanted to have a say in the party’s nomination contest. Meanwhile, Trump was practically unopposed in the GOP nomination contest, so there wasn’t the same motivation among Republican-leaning voters to register ahead of the primaries in the spring until we got closer to the general election.
Florida provides a clear example of this. Much has been made of the GOP registering about 147,000 more voters than the Democrats in the roughly eight months since the February registration deadline for the state’s March 17 presidential primary. Yet in the eight months before the primary deadline (so, going back to the end of June 2019), Democrats registered about 42,000 more voters than the GOP due to the high interest in the Democratic presidential race. Now, that might still be a net win for the GOP — because if we subtract the two, Republicans registered 105,000 more voters — but it’s not as simple as that. Not only is party registration sometimes a lagging indicator as we mentioned above, but there are also a lot more people registering as independent now, and more of those voters may lean Democratic.
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Independent voters complicate things
In recent years, a growing number of voters don’t want to be associated with either of the two major parties, and instead register as independent. After hovering in the low- to high-30s from the late 1980s to the late 2000s, the share of Americans who identify as politically independent has now reached or even topped 40 percent in recent years, according to Gallup. And in the states where there is party registration data available, the share of registered independents has grown to more than a quarter of the electorate while the percentage of registered Democrats and Republicans has decreased.
That, in turn, makes it harder to know which party has an advantage in a given state because there’s this big block of voters who won’t tell us which party they prefer. The reality, of course, is that most independents lean toward one party, but their preferences are still masked at the voter registration level. This is especially tricky in battleground states such as Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania that have seen major upticks in the share of voters who have registered with no party affiliation.
But we’re not completely in the dark when it comes to who registers as an independent voter. For instance, younger voters are more likely to identify as independent than older voters. And importantly, younger voters of color are also more likely to register as independents, as Florida’s registration figures have shown. Both of these groups tend to lean Democratic which means that even if many of these voters don’t openly identify as Democrats, they’re more likely to vote for Democrats than not. More broadly, polls show Biden ahead of Trump among voters who identify as independent. That means even if Republicans are winning the registration battle in some key states, it might not be enough to offset the number of registered Democrats and independents who may back Biden in the end.
In other words, despite the surge in GOP registrations in a few swing states, it’s hard to read that as a clear sign of success for the GOP in November. It could be a good sign, but it could also be a lot of noise, and you’re better off looking at the polls instead.