The Republican Advance in the South — and Other Party Registration Trends – Sabato’s Crystal Ball

Katie R. Ochoa
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KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— Party registration can be a lagging indicator of political change, but recent changes in some states are bringing registration more in line with actual voting.

— Republicans have taken the voter registration edge in states such as Florida and West Virginia somewhat recently, and Kentucky flipped to them just last week. Democrats have built bigger leads in several blue states.

— Democrats hold a substantial national lead in party registration, but a lot of that has to do with the fact that a number of states, many of which are Republican-leaning, do not register voters by party. A little less than two-thirds of the states register voters by party (31 states plus the District of Columbia).

— Overall, Republicans have made gains over Democrats in 19 states since summer 2018, when we last looked at these trends, while Democrats have made gains over Republicans in 12 states and the District of Columbia. There are more registered Democrats than Republicans in 17 of these states plus DC, and more registered Republicans than Democrats in 14.

Party registration trends

Last fall in Florida, something downright historic occurred. For the first time in the state’s modern history, the number of registered Republicans surpassed the number of registered Democrats. It has added an element of congruency to Florida politics, where Republicans were already dominating elections up and down the ballot. And it has provided more momentum for the GOP as it seeks to convert Florida from a battleground state into a reliably red one.

For Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, the GOP success was also a personal one. He had made the idea of “flipping” Florida a significant goal of his administration and put $2 million into seeing that it happened. When it did, one of the prime beneficiaries was DeSantis, whose reputation on the national scene as an effective party-builder was enhanced.

For generations, party registration had been notoriously out of sync with election results. Across the late 20th century, Republican presidential winners such as Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush won landslide victories by carrying states with significant Democratic registration pluralities.

But those days are fading fast, with a dramatic shift in particular occurring in the once “solid” Democratic South. For decades now, Republicans have dominated the region electorally, but it is only now that long healthy Democratic registration advantages are finally evaporating. In the last few years, the number of registered Republicans has finally surpassed the number of registered Democrats not only in Florida, but also in Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. (The Mountain State is not technically Southern, though it has become very Republican in recent years just like many Southern states.)

Kentucky flipped less than a week ago, on July 15. A Democratic registration lead of more than 185,000 in mid-2020 is now a Republican advantage of 2,491 registered voters — 1,612,060 to 1,609,569. Meanwhile, a couple of other Southern states with party registration, North Carolina and Louisiana, are also trending Republican, but Democrats retain a registration edge in both. The Tar Heel State did see unaffiliated voters surpass Democrats recently, though.

Why does all this matter? For a long time, party registration totals have been viewed as a “lagging indicator” of a state’s political evolution, changing more slowly than dominance at the ballot box. As a consequence, registration data has sometimes not been very predictive of how a state would vote. Yet now, as states switch from Democratic to Republican across the South, the data is becoming more reflective of actual election outcomes.

Party flips in registration are both dramatic and historic events that stoke Republican momentum, while dispiriting Democrats. Florida Republican leaders hope that the party’s expanding voter base will not only help fuel a big victory for the GOP across the Sunshine State this fall but also help provide a solid presidential win in 2024.

Table 1: The GOP’s southern advance

It has been said that party registration totals are a “lagging indicator” in a state’s political evolution. For example, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia have all become reliably Republican at the ballot box, as none of them have voted Democratic for president this century. Florida, meanwhile, remains competitive but is trending Republican, and it voted for Donald Trump twice. Yet it has only been recently that the number of registered Republican voters has surpassed the number of registered Democratic voters in each of these states. The margins presented here are based on the difference between the total number of Democratic and Republican registered voters at 2-year intervals since 2008. For example, at the end of May (the most recent available report), there were 5,135,749 registered Republicans in Florida and 4,959,838 registered Democrats, a GOP advantage of 175,911. In the table below, entries with a Democratic registration advantage are indicated in regular type, while entries with a GOP advantage are listed in bold type.

 

Sources: Editions of America Votes (CQ Press, a division of SAGE) for party registration totals from 2008 through 2020. The 2022 figures are from the websites of state election authorities in Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia.

Looking inside Florida and Pennsylvania

The Republican breakthrough in Florida was based on some dramatic changes within the state. At the time of Trump’s election in November 2016, Democrats held the registration advantage in 30 of Florida’s 67 counties. By this spring, Democrats led in just 15 counties.

Over the last 6 years, Republicans flipped a number of counties in rural Florida, especially in the northern part of the state near Alabama and Georgia. But the GOP also gained the registration lead in several rather populous counties in central Florida, such as Pinellas (St. Petersburg), Polk (Lakeland), and Volusia (Daytona Beach). In addition, Republicans trimmed the Democratic registration advantage in heavily Hispanic Miami-Dade County, from 220,000 in 2016 to less than 155,000 this spring.

Yet it was not all bad news for the Democrats. Since 2016, they have expanded their registration lead in Orange County (Orlando) and Duval County (Jacksonville). Still, that has not been good enough to keep pace with the Republicans, as Florida Democrats find themselves in the unusual position of playing catch up in the statewide registration battle.

As Florida shows signs of growing redder, GOP registration gains in another critical battleground state, Pennsylvania, show Democrats with a significant lead in spite of a reduced margin. The Democratic registration advantage was about 550,000 in 2006, surged past 1 million when Barack Obama first ran for president in 2008, and is now back to a pre-Obama lead of barely 540,000.

Republicans have posted significant registration gains in western Pennsylvania, once a hotbed of blue-collar Democrats. Since 2016, 4 counties in the region have flipped to the GOP, including Cambria (Johnstown) and Westmoreland, a populous county outside Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, Democrats have expanded their domination of the once-Republican Philadelphia suburbs. With the registration advantage in Chester County switching during the “Trump era” from Republican to Democratic, the latter now holds the upper hand in party registration in all 4 suburban counties. The Democrats’ greatest advantage is in Montgomery County, where this summer there are now nearly 100,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. It is a far cry from a generation ago, when Montgomery was the crown jewel of the state Republican Party.

Flipping Florida (and some of its Southern friends)

In 2020, there was already a considerable amount of congruency between voter registration and the presidential election results. Of the 31 party registration states (and the District of Columbia), the 2 categories were in sync in 25 states. The exceptions were 5 Southern-oriented states won by Donald J. Trump that at the time of the 2020 election still had more registered Democrats than Republicans: Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, and West Virginia. The other state that went against the grain was Arizona, where registered Republicans continue to outnumber Democrats even as Joe Biden carried the state by 10,457 votes. Given the recent flips, it would not be surprising if the nationwide congruency rate in the 2024 presidential election drew even closer to unanimous.

For years, Democrats were largely able to limit the Republican registration advance in the South to incremental gains. Yet since the eve of Trump’s election in 2016, the GOP’s ability to couple both registration advantages with election victories has begun to happen quickly, as shown in Table 1.

Many political observers abhor Trump’s high-voltage, sharp-edged brand of politics. But his energy and bite now runs through the Republican Party and has arguably been a factor in the GOP’s recent registration surge. Yet Trump is not the only reason this is happening. For a generation, there has been a steady stream of Southern white Democrats converting to the Republican Party. And it is a fact of life that numerous other “yellow dog” Democrats have been dying off, leaving states across the region increasingly dependent on Black voters for their viability.

A prime example is Louisiana, a state where voter registration is tallied by both party and race. In the “era of Trump” (from late 2016 to the present), the white share of Democratic registrations in the Bayou State has dropped by nearly 25%, from 563,673 in November 2016 to 425,799 this June. Meanwhile, the number of registered Black Democrats in Louisiana since 2016 has stayed roughly the same, just north of 700,000. As a consequence, the Black share of the state’s Democratic registrations has climbed to 60% (from 55% in late 2016), a change based almost entirely on a shrinking white percentage of the Democratic electorate.

On the other hand, it is an entirely different story among Louisiana Republicans. For all practical purposes, the party’s registration numbers are racially homogenous, with nearly 940,000 white voters and barely 20,000 Black voters on the GOP rolls. In percentage terms, the Louisiana Republican electorate is 94% white and 2% Black, with the remainder classified racially as “Other.”

Table 2: Summer 2022 party registration totals by region

In the states that register voters by party, there are nearly 11.4 million more Democrats than Republicans, a numerical edge that is down a little bit since 2016. It is a disparity fashioned in 5 Democratic states: California (with a Democratic margin of 5 million registered voters), New York (nearly 3.3 million), Maryland (nearly 1.25 million), and Massachusetts and New Jersey (each with Democratic registration advantages of fully 1 million voters). The Republican deficit would no doubt be much closer if more states across the South, led by Texas, registered voters by party, as well as the industrial Midwest. As it is, state registration totals are based on the latest numbers as of mid-July 2022. The vast majority were updated within the last few months.

 

Notes: Totals are presented as they are listed on the state election website, with the exception of roughly 10 states where both the number of active and inactive voters are posted. In these, only the tally of active voters is listed here. The leader in each region is noted in bold and italics.

The following states register voters by party:

Northeast: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, West Virginia, plus the District of Columbia.

South: Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma.

Midwest: Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota.

West: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming.

Source: State election websites.

What’s happening elsewhere

Since 2016, party registration changes outside the South have been a mixed bag. Republicans have succeeded in trimming Democratic registration advantages in several battleground states, including Nevada and Pennsylvania. In the former, there were nearly 100,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans at the time of Trump’s election; now, the Democratic margin in Nevada is only a little over 50,000. In Pennsylvania, registered Democrats outpaced Republicans by more than 900,000 in late 2016; this July, the Democratic advantage stands at about 540,000.

Meanwhile, in Iowa, the Republican registration edge has more than doubled in size over the Democrats since 2016, from 33,000 to nearly 85,000, while both the GOP and the Democrats have surpassed the group of voters who are not registered with a party. In the process, Trump has carried the state twice by almost 10 percentage points, and essentially removed it from the ranks of battleground states. It is a good bet that the recent Republican gains in Iowa are a factor in the national Democratic Party’s consideration of stripping the state of its traditional lead-off spot on the presidential nominating calendar.

Another state historically at the front of the primary calendar, New Hampshire, saw Democratic registrants surpass Republican ones around the time of the 2020 presidential primary, although undeclared voters still hold a plurality. Registered Democrats also recently surpassed independents to become the plurality of registrants in Maine and New Jersey, while independents are now ahead of Democrats in Oregon, even as the Democratic edge over Republicans has expanded.

There also has been a Democratic countersurge in states in the Amtrak corridor from Washington, D.C. to New York City, as well as in parts of the West. Taking out Pennsylvania, the states of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, plus the District have seen the combined Democratic registration advantage in these jurisdictions swell by more than a half million since the middle of 2018

Out west in Colorado, the Democratic registration lead has widened by more than 100,000 since late 2016. But nothing matches California, where a Democratic registration advantage of 3.7 million has exploded to 5 million since Trump’s election.

The party registration states are mainly on the 2 coasts — with 11 (and the District) in the Northeast and 10 in the West. There are only 4 party registration states in the Midwest, all agrarian ones west of the Mississippi River, and 6 in the South. Arkansas is a hybrid when it comes to registration. The state gives voters the chance of registering by party, but nearly 90% of the total number of Razorback State registrants have declined the option.

It should be no surprise that because most of the states that register by party are concentrated in the most Democratic regions of the country, Democrats held a 9-percentage point lead over the Republicans (39% to 30%) in the nationwide tally of registered voters this summer.

Most of the rest are independents, a growth stock over the last generation as trust in the two major parties has faltered. Yet while the number of independents approaches 30% of all registered voters, there are those involved in politics who feel that percentage is inflated. It has been estimated that the number of “pure” independents is closer to 10%, with the others actually leaning to one party or the other.

Table 3 and Figure 1: Nationwide party registration trends since 2000

The United States is a two-party nation, but nationwide party registration totals over the last generation have shown a steady growth in the number of registered independents. Since the beginning of this century, the share of registered Democrats nationally has dropped by 5 percentage points (from 44% to 39%) and the proportion of registered Republicans by 3 points (from 33% to 30%). Meanwhile, the share of registered independents has risen this century by 6 points (from 22% to 28%). Many of these changes occurred through the middle of the last decade. Over the past few years, there has not been much movement in the national party registration percentages. But the country’s political evolution has proceeded nonetheless, with a surge in Republican registrants in the South and a Democratic countersurge in major party strongholds in the Northeast and West such as California and New York.

 

 

Note: To be sure, there is something of an apples and oranges element in this table in comparing the national party registration percentages since 2000. From 2000 through 2016, the proportions in some states were based on a combination of active and inactive voters. This year, the author decided a truer measurement was to include only active registered voters in the 10 or so states where there was also the choice to add the inactive voters. Still, the accent is on the trend line since 2000 with the proportion of registered Democratic and Republican voters down since 2000, and registered independent voters up. Percentages do not add to 100 due to the exclusion of the small percentage of registered third party and miscellaneous voters. “Ind.” stands for independent.

Sources: Richard Winger’s newsletter, Ballot Access News, for election-eve party registration numbers in 2000, 2008, and 2016; the websites of state election authorities for totals as of July 2022.

Setting the independents aside, there are currently almost 11.4 million more registered Democrats than Republicans in the party registration states. Yet that large edge has been fashioned in only 5 of them — California (where there are 5 million more registered Democrats than Republicans), New York (with nearly 3.3 million more Democrats), Maryland (almost 1.25 million), Massachusetts (1 million), and New Jersey (with 1 million more Democrats than Republicans registered). In the remaining party registration states, the Democrats and Republicans have a similar aggregate number of voters.

Like other aspects of American politics, party registration is a moving target. Republicans in Florida, Oklahoma, and West Virginia have not just surpassed the Democrats in voter registration in recent years, they have blown by them. In Oklahoma, the GOP registration advantage is approaching 450,000. In Florida, it has surpassed 175,000. In West Virginia, the gap exceeds 60,000. All in all, it represents a new chapter in Southern politics, and by extension, the nation as a whole.

See Map 1 and Table 4 for the current registration tallies by state, and Table 5 for registration trends by state over the last couple of decades. This story concludes with a brief note on these data and how they were compiled.

Map 1: Party registration leader by state

Table 4: Summer 2022 state party registration totals

A total of 31 states and the District of Columbia register voters by party. It is a number that includes some of the nation’s most populous states: California, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Most of the party registration states are clustered in the Northeast and the West. A half dozen are scattered across the South. The smallest number is in the Midwest, where the region’s party registration states are concentrated in the agrarian heartland west of the Mississippi River. Elsewhere, voters do not register by party. They are essentially independents and often can cast a ballot in the primary of their choice. This tradition is seen in the industrial Midwest and across the South from Texas to South Carolina.

 

Note: States often tally voter registration on a monthly basis (more on this at the end of the article). The methodology of counting registered voters varies by state, with some separating active from inactive registrants; we used active registrant counts whenever available. In Alaska, “Undeclared voters” are included with “Inds.” So too in Arkansas, where nearly 90% of all registered voters are listed as “Optional.” “Inds.” stand for independents, which can go by other names, such as Unaffiliated or No Party. “I-D” or “I-R” means that a state has a plurality of registered independents, with more registered Democrats than Republicans (“D”) or more registered Republicans than Democrats (“R”). Percentages do not always add to 100 due to rounding.

Source: State election websites

Table 5: Party registration trends by state since 2000

Table 5 shows the trends in party registration from 2000 to now, along with some commentary on recent developments. While a general trend has been Republican inroads, particularly in the South, Democrats have expanded their edges in some states as well. Overall, Republicans have made gains over Democrats in 19 states since summer 2018, when we last looked at these trends, while Democrats have made gains over Republicans in 12 states and the District of Columbia. This table sets aside independents to focus on where and when Democrats and Republicans have held a registration advantage over the other.

 

Note: The largest Democratic and Republican registration margins among the 5 data points are in bold. Party registration totals are based on the number of active voters in states where totals for both active and inactive voters are posted.

Sources: Election-eve party registration figures for 2000, 2008, and 2016 were compiled by Richard Winger and published in his bimonthly newsletter, Ballot Access News. The 2018 and 2022 data were compiled by the author from party registration numbers posted on state election websites.

P.S. A few additional thoughts on party registration

For the individual citizen, there are two basic aspects to voting. First, there is registering to vote; then, there is the act of casting an election ballot. Traditionally, the focus is on the latter and the results it produces. Registering to vote can seem a bit murkier, for all practical purposes existing in a world of its own.

Altogether, 31 states plus the District of Columbia offer registration by party. Most are in the Northeast and the West, and include California and New York. The remaining 19 states that do not register by party are largely concentrated in the industrial Midwest and Deep South, plus Texas.

Sometimes it is difficult to compare one state’s registration figures with another. States purge their rolls of “dead wood” at their own pace, and in their own way. Some states publicly update their registration numbers on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis; in other states, it might be done every year or so.

A number of states report their totals in terms of “active” voters, those who participate in primaries and general elections on a regular basis. Yet there are also states that report the number of “inactive” voters, a disparate group that includes those who have died, left the state, or grown disinterested in politics.

In Kentucky, the secretary of state’s office recently listed the various reasons for being purged from their registration rolls. It reported that in March 2022, there were “6,881 voters removed — 5,874 deceased voters, 613 felony convicts, 300 voters who moved out of state, 71 adjudged mentally incompetent, and 23 who voluntarily de-registered.” The total of inactive registrants varies from state to state, but often runs about 10% to 20% the size of the number of actives.

The active totals are featured here from the 10 or so states where there is a choice to made in what party registration totals to use. Among the states that offer an explicit tally of active registrations are Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Nevada. Data from the other states are often not broken down between active and inactive voters on their election websites but are used here nonetheless.

The data above are all from the most recent reports we could find from state-level sources. Generally speaking, these states all updated their figures within the past couple of months. A few exceptions: Arizona last updated its numbers in April, New York in February, and Connecticut and Massachusetts last year.

Rhodes Cook was a political reporter for Congressional Quarterly for more than 2 decades and is a senior columnist at Sabato’s Crystal Ball. He also publishes the Rhodes Cook Letter, a newsletter that focuses on electoral politics.

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