Strength in Numbers

Battleground-State Voter Registration Gives Democrats Early Edge

The push to register new voters will accelerate throughout the summer and fall, with the parties, non-profit organizations, and the campaigns spending millions to try to gain the upper hand.

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Students line up for voter registration forms or a chance to meet with celebrities visiting East Los Angeles College for the “Rock the Campus for Bernie” event in Monterey Park, California, on May 10, 2016.

Photographer: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Democrats hold a registration advantage over Republicans in four of seven battleground states likely to play a central role in the presidential election, even as Republicans and independents have made gains.

The party that now controls the White House is ahead in registered voters in Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, while Republicans hold the lead in Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Politics. Three other likely battlegrounds—Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin—don’t register voters by party.

Democratic President Barack Obama won nine of those 10 states in 2012, with the exception being a roughly 2-percentage-point loss in North Carolina. As an expected general election contest between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton comes into focus, the states included in the analysis where Democrats hold a registration advantage have a combined 70 electoral votes, while the ones where Republicans have an edge account for 19.

None of that suggests the Democrats or Republicans will win any of those states and being registered with a given party doesn't always translate to voting for that party's presidential candidate. Trump, for example, has also argued that he will have a strong crossover appeal and will be able to win over independents and some Democrats, while Clinton has been appealing to moderate Republicans who dislike the real-estate developer and TV personality. 

There's also still plenty of time for the numbers to change before November, since registration deadlines don't arrive in most states until October. 

Based on current registration data and numbers from a similar time four years ago, the findings do reveal one important baseline for each party as they map out their plans to win the White House and make gains in Congress. The drive to register new voters will accelerate throughout the summer and fall, with the parties, non-profit organizations and the campaigns spending millions to gain an advantage.

“In a handful of states, it's already begun,” said Pratt Wiley, national voter outreach director for the Democratic National Committee. “Ohio has a field team in place that will only grow exponentially over the course of the campaign season. Their primary task right now is to register voters.”

One other key variable is the significant growth since the last presidential election of those registered as independents, a reflection of dissatisfaction with both parties. Those unaffiliated voters grew in many of the states at a faster rate during the period than registrations of Democrats or Republicans. In Colorado, for example, registration of Democrats grew 12.6 percent and Republicans by 4.4 percent during the four years, while independents grew by 18.3 percent.

Independents, always a key part of trying to win a presidential election, represented 29 percent of the overall electorate in 2012, according to exit polls. Republican Mitt Romney won 50 percent of that vote, followed by Obama at 45 percent.

Over the past four years, Republicans have shown greater overall registration growth in the battleground states. The GOP added almost 614,000 voters in the seven states reviewed, while Democrats have gained about 289,000.

After placing less emphasis on voter registration than Democrats in previous election cycles, Republicans have repeatedly said they're making it a greater focus in 2016.

As part of that effort, the Republican National Committee used its nationwide voter database a year ago to create community “turfs,” including more than 1,300 in battleground states. In those areas, volunteers and paid staff will work to register new voters and make contact with independents and infrequent Republican voters.

“We call it conservative community organizing,” said Chris Carr, the RNC's political director.

Since January, Carr said volunteers alone have registered 16,570 new Republican voters in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia, in addition to hundreds of thousands of newly registered Republicans nationally from this year's primaries and caucuses.

Democrats have traditionally placed greater emphasis on expanding the electorate through registration because many of their supporters, including students and minorities, have a lower rate of registration and are more geographically mobile, meaning they need to update their address information.

“There's also a lot of low hanging fruit out there,” Wiley said in a nod to such voters. “If we can get to them shortly after a move, those are folks you don't need to talk to later on in the cycle.”

The DNC's data warehouse allows the party's candidates—from the local level to the presidential campaign—to blend data, analysis and communications tools.

“It starts off with data,” said Wiley, who called the DNC's database the “most dynamic and complete voter file in the country.”

The information, for example, allows campaigns to look at individual city blocks to determine whether there's a high concentration of unregistered voters and whether there's a high probability those people would vote for the party's candidates.

Such efficiency is increasingly important, Wiley said, because non-profit groups such as the League of Women Voters, NAACP, and Rock the Vote increasingly have fewer resources available for voter registration.

“What they are all seeing is less money in the foundation world being spent on voter registration activities and that means we need to do more with less,” he said. “What we are able to do is help the entire ecosystem do more with less.”

Following heated primary contests this year, both parties have seen an influx in registration activity, especially in states where there were intense races.

Republican registration grew about 3 percent from January through March in Florida, the largest electoral vote prize (29 electoral votes) among the likely battleground states surveyed. Democrats, who maintain a narrow registration advantage in the state, grew their base by 1 percent.

In Florida and elsewhere, registering Hispanic voters will be a top priority for Democrats. Early polling suggests they're overwhelmingly opposed to Trump, who wants to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The bipartisan National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials has estimated that at least 13.1 million Latinos will vote in November, a 17 percent increase over their 2012 turnout.

“I think you will see a big push by Democrats and aligned groups to increase registration among Hispanics,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor who studies public opinion, elections, and voting behavior at Emory University in Atlanta. “Trump is truly despised among Hispanics.”

Given Trump's popularity among working-class whites, Abramowitz said he expects Republicans will place a heavy emphasis on trying to register more of them in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania. “There is a segment of the non-voting electorate that could potentially support Trump,” he said.

Abramowitz said he's skeptical that Trump will dramatically alter the shape of the electorate in November, or that the overall turnout will be much beyond what was recorded in the last White House campaign without an incumbent, in 2008.

When Obama was first elected president, an estimated 62.3 percent of eligible citizens cast ballots, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. That number dropped to 57.5 percent in 2012.

“It's hard to change the electorate very much in a presidential year,” Abramowitz said. “Both parties are going to be working hard to increase registration and turnout and only a fraction of those not voting [in the past] are going to be responsive to those efforts.”

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