In Pennsylvania, Florida, Iowa and North Carolina, more new voters identify as Republicans
by Ben Schreckinger
POLITICO REPORTED — For weeks, Donald Trump has watched his poll standing in battleground states plummet, from Pennsylvania, where his strength among Rust Belt families was supposed to turn a blue state competitive, to North Carolina, where Democrats had been making inroads in recent elections, to the ultimate battleground of them all: Florida.
Trump’s poll numbers remain dire, but he can point to at least one ray of hope for a turnaround: Republicans have continued gaining ground in recent months in voter registration in Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Iowa, while the late surge in Democratic registrations relative to Republican registrations that occurred in battleground states during the final months of the 2012 election had not been replicated in numbers released in early August.
“The atmospherics of voter registration trends in those states do not point to a strong Democratic year, so that’s one negative the Trump campaign does not have to deal with at this point,” said Louisiana pollster John Couvillon, who added that spikes in registration can add a point or two to a candidate’s vote share in a close race. “The voter registration data I’m seeing does not support the idea of a surge in Democratic voter enthusiasm.”
Hillary Clinton remains comfortably ahead by an average of 6 points in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls, and encouraging registration trends alone will be insufficient to carry Trump in must-win states like Pennsylvania, where he trails by an average of 9 points in recent polls. Meanwhile, Republicans have been losing ground in Hispanic-heavy Western battlegrounds of Colorado, Arizona and Nevada, where Democrats have boosted their voter registration standing in recent months.
But the registration numbers in Eastern and Midwestern battleground states offer a rare piece of welcome news to Republicans bracing for the possibility of a November massacre.
In Pennsylvania — where Democrats’ registration advantage has fallen by a fifth since the 2012 election, to 915,000 voters — more than 85,000 former Democrats have become Republicans this year, almost three times the number of voters who made the opposite switch.
The party-switching has been especially lopsided in Pennsylvania counties in the southwest region, coal country and the northeast, which includes Scranton. Megan Sweeney, communications director for the state Republican Party, and Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist based in Harrisburg, said the party-switching was a mix of push and pull factors. “Certainly part of it is Trump-motivated,” Gerow said. “My view is that a lot more of it is motivated by the disgust that many Democrats have for the administration.”
In North Carolina, Democrats’ voter registration advantage shrunk by 44,000 between June 2015 and May 2016, more than twice the rate it fell at during that period last cycle. As of Aug. 13, the Democratic advantage had dwindled to 641,000.
The picture in North Carolina is complicated by the rise of unaffiliated voters. Even more striking than Democrats’ shrinking registration advantage over Republicans is the influx of new residents into the state who do not register with either party but tend to be less tied than longtime residents to the white Southern culture that has taken a shine to Trump. The number of independents has surged almost 40 percent since 2008, from roughly 1.4 million to more than 1.9 million. During that period, the Republican rolls have remained essentially static and Democrats have lost about 200,000 voters.
“Even though both sides are instituting and working voter registration drive programs, unaffiliateds continue to outpace both of those efforts. That’s what’s going to make 2016 a very interesting year,” said Paul Shumaker, a veteran Republican strategist in the state.
More concerning for Democrats should be Florida, where the party’s registration advantage has shrunk to 259,000 voters — less than half the party’s edge during the 2012 election.
Florida, like North Carolina, has seen a surge in independent voter registrations in recent years, but in a crucial swing state with a large and growing minority population, the shrinking advantage is nonetheless disappointing.
So far this year, Florida Republicans have added close to 70,000 more voters to their rolls than Democrats have. “That [change], especially when you’re talking about a state that Obama carried by less than 100,000 votes last time, could be significant,” said Couvillon, the Louisiana pollster.
The strength of Trump’s ground operation in the primaries varied wildly from state to state, but in Florida, under the direction of former Rick Scott aide Karen Giorno, his campaign has taken credit for registering 35,000 new Republicans and bringing 5,000 independents and Democrats into the party.
That result illustrates the value of concerted registration efforts but also points to a larger problem for Trump. The political neophyte has largely ignored his ground operation and delegated the bulk of it to the Republican National Committee, which is falling short of its target staffing levels in state after state. Republicans and right-leaning groups have been working to catch up to the left’s advantage in mobilizing new registrants — achieved largely by targeting minorities and students — but in all eight battleground states for which POLITICO reviewed historical data, Democrats’ registration spread improved between the beginning of the general election period in mid-2012 and Election Day in November (a pattern that can also be attributed, in part, to the absence of a Democratic presidential primary that year).
And Trump’s biggest fans have already had the chance to register to vote for him in the Republican primary, meaning that pool may be tapped out, while those most motivated to vote against him still have time to register.
But anecdotal evidence reveals he is attracting newcomers, motivated both to vote for and against him.
Groups that register voters under nonprofit auspices are forbidden from pushing one party or another, but in Arizona, where the state Democratic Party has a goal of registering 100,000 voters, party field staffers have found the right way to frame the choice for new voters unsure whether to become Democrats or Republicans. The volunteers ask the new voters whether they tend to agree more with a local Democratic lawmaker — Rep. Raúl Grijalva in Tucson, Reps. Kyrsten Sinema or Ruben Gallego in Tempe — or with Donald Trump. “More often than not, we register Democrats with that line,” said a person involved with the registration drive.
In Iowa — a swing state where Democrats lost their entire 100,000-active-voter edge between the 2008 and 2012 elections and have seen their position continue to erode more slowly this cycle — Joe Henry of the League of United Latin American Citizens said Trump has made his work registering Hispanic voters much easier. “We’ve probably had a 20 percent increase just because of concerns about the hate,” he said.
Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, pointed out that Republicans’ new registrations in the state had more than doubled since last cycle.
Three other states considered battlegrounds — Wisconsin, Michigan and Virginia — do not register voters by party.
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