SPEED READ:

  • In Kentucky and Louisiana, which both have governors' races this year, the number of registered Republicans increased since 2016 while the number of registered Democrats decreased.
  • In Florida and Pennsylvania, two major 2020 battleground states, Republicans are outperforming Democrats in voter registration.
  • “That does go against the narrative that Trump was going to lead the party over a cliff,” says one political scientist.
  • Independent voters are on the rise.
 

Republicans have reasons for optimism heading into this fall’s elections for governor. All three of this year's races -- in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi -- are being held in the South, a region where the party is already dominant.

There’s at least one other factor playing in the GOP’s favor: party registration.

Democrats may still have the lead in total voter registration in Kentucky and Louisiana, but Republicans are clearly gaining strength. (Mississippi doesn’t register voters by party.)

Republicans are also gaining relative strength in some of the states expected to be competitive in the 2020 presidential election. Republicans have been doing better than Democrats, for example, in the sizable swing states of Florida and Pennsylvania.

“Republicans have been gaining,” notes Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida (UCF). “That does go against the narrative that Trump was going to lead the party over a cliff.”

In Kentucky, the number of registered Republicans has increased by 104,765, or 12 percent, since the 2016 election. The number of registered Democrats, meanwhile, dropped by 9,445, or less than 1 percent. Even more dramatically, Republicans have gained 174,214 registered voters since GOP Gov. Matt Bevin’s inauguration in 2015, compared with an increase of just 2,731 Democrats.

The change in Louisiana has been less stark but is still positive for the GOP. Republicans have gained 15,148 voters since 2016, or 1 percent. By contrast, Democratic voter registration has decreased by 83,246, or 6 percent.

“As old Democrats are dying off, their replacements identify more as Republicans,” says John Couvillon, a GOP pollster and consultant in Louisiana. “Even as those old people identify as Democrats but voted Republican, the generation that’s replacing them is Republican in fact and in registration.”

 

The Presidential Vote

Only 31 states, plus the District of Columbia, register voters by party. According to Gallup, 30 percent of voters nationwide identify as Republican.

That’s below both independents (38 percent) and Democrats (31 percent), but it marks a significant rebound from the GOP's recent low of 22 percent in January 2018.

In Florida, the last two presidential races have been decided by 1 percent margins. Last year, Republicans won close races in the state for both governor and U.S. Senate.

While nearly a quarter-million more Floridians are registered as Democrats than Republicans, the GOP has done a better job of turning out its voters. In each of the last three presidential elections, the Democratic vote percentage has trailed their registration lead by about 3 percentage points.

That's why Mike Coleman, a Democratic official in Palm Beach County, told a state party gathering earlier this month that to be competitive in Florida next year, Democrats will have to register an additional 500,000 voters, which would be almost a 10 percent boost.

“That doesn’t mean they’re destined to lose, but it does suggest the problem facing Democrats in Florida,” says UCF's Jewett. “Even when they’ve had a lead in voter registration, they haven’t had victories to match.”

In the potential battleground state of Arizona, where the parties reached a split decision in governor and Senate races last year, Democrats have posted strong registration gains since 2016, adding 79,502 voters for a 7 percent increase. But Republicans, who enjoy an overall edge in the state, enjoyed gains that were nearly as strong -- 73,024 voters, or a 6 percent increase.

In Pennsylvania, the GOP has lost 31,224 voters (about one-tenth of 1 percent) since 2016. Still, that’s a far lower rate of attrition than Democrats, who have lost 103,862 registered voters (a 2.5 percent drop) over that same span.

The only other state that may be competitive in presidential voting next year and registers by party is New Hampshire. Democrats enjoy some momentum there, scoring a 2.5 percent gain in registered voters since 2016, compared to a dip of .4 percent for Republicans.

 

Independents Continue to Rise

Both parties saw their share of registered voters nationwide decline slightly between 2016 and 2018, according to a count by Ballot Access News.

Democrats fell from 40.6 percent to 39.8 percent in the 31 states that register by party and D.C., while Republicans went from 29.4 percent to 29.2 percent.

Over time, the number of people registering with minor parties or declaring themselves independent continues to rise.

“There’s really more of a partisan dealignment going on,” says Couvillon, the Louisiana consultant. “Even though you do have this partisan polarization, people are dealigning more than lining up with either party.”

Most independents, however, continue to lean toward one party or the other, even if they shy from declaring formal allegiance. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, among the 38 percent of Americans who consider themselves independent, only 7 percent do not lean either toward the Republicans or Democrats.

“There are a lot of people who don’t want to affiliate with either party,” says Republican consultant Whit Ayres. “That said, the vast majority of independents vote fairly regularly with one party or the other.”

 

This appears in the Politics newsletter. Subscribe for free.