Election forecasters may be overweighting polls and underweighting voter registration data. Registration data has a lot of noise – it’s hard to judge how independents vote, voters cross parties, and get out the vote operations matter. But all things being equal, you’d rather have voters registered to your party, not the other one. In Pennsylvania, Vice President Biden has a solid lead in the polls. If he were to lose Pennsylvania straight up (absent the very real possibility of voter suppression and questionable legal maneuvers), it will be because PA does not have enough registered Democrats.

Fewer Democrats in Pennsylvania

It has taken 2.97M votes to win Pennsylvania in each of the last 3 Presidential elections.

Pennsylvania has lost over 300k registered Democrats since the 2008 election, including nearly 50k since 2016.

Pennsylvania Registered Voters20082020Change% Change
Registered Democrats4,479,5134,168,900-311k-7%
Registered Republicans3,243,0463,451,514+209k+6%
Registered Other1,033,0291,277,325+244k+24%

Let’s cut registration data another way. Republicans are doing better registering voters in counties they won in 2016 and less bad in counties they lost.

Registrations in Counties by 2016 OutcomeRepublicans RegistrationsDemocrat Registrations
Republican Counties+162k-90k
Democrat Counties-12k+41k

What about voters switching party affiliation?

DemocratRepublicanOtherTotal
Switching to Democrat42,59350,49493,087
Switching to Republican65,66228,99894,660

The totals slightly favor Republicans, but there is some good news in there for Democrats. They lead in other affiliations switching to their party. This could augur well for Independents voting in November.

Democrats Need to Win More and Lose Less

Registrations don’t have to mean votes, but if Pennsylvania’s electorate has permanently shifted, it does not help the Democrats to have a smaller base to drive. How many of their registered voters can they drive to vote? Let’s look at the data, with the acknowledgment that the COVID-19 pandemic may scamble some of this, increasing vote by mail and potentially depressing in-person voting.

Which Election Year Does 2020 Look Like?2004200820122016
Democrat Votes / Registered Democrats72%73%70%69%
Republican Votes / Registered Republicans80%82%86%90%
Winner That YearDDDR
Implied 2020 Winner Based on Same RatiosD +224kD + 261kD +4k R + 196k votes

What kind of year is it going to be? Anything resembling 2016 by the Republican voters of Pennsylvania would make it nearly impossible to lose. Even a return to 2012 form would favor Republicans. Of course, a wave election like 2008 would swamp Republicans, up and down the ticket.

Dem/Rep90% (’16)86% (’12)82% (’08)80% (’04)
69% (’16)R +196kR + 51kD +75kD +173k
70% (’12)R + 141kD + 4kD + 130kD +228k
72% (’04)R + 5kR + 1kD +125kD +224k
73% (’08)D + 10kD +135kD +262kD +360k

Let’s delve more into 2008. In one of the most historic elections in American history, Democrats enjoyed a robust 12% gain in registrations over 2004. However, the percentage of registered voters who put in the effort to vote remained nearly flat. That would suggest a ceiling for Democratic get out the vote potential (who tend to skew younger). Perhaps vote by mail may alter this calculus.

20042008
Democrat Voters/Democrat Registrations+6.7%+12.4%
Democrat Voters/Democrat Registrations72%73%

The ratios above ignore Independents, and of course, many will vote for Republicans or Democrats. It’s meant to highlight the relative challenges each party faces. If a large number of the 1.28M Independents break for Joe Biden, he is most likely assured of victory.

Flipping Counties Back

Much less so than Michigan, only three counties flipped from D to R in 2016. Most Pennsylvania counties already voted Republican. In each of those counties, Republicans have registered more voters. Those counties will be hard to flip back.

Change in Registrations from 2016 to 2020DemocratsRepublicans
Erie County+0.2k+5k
Luzerne-2.5k+10.2k
Northhampton+1.8k+5.9k

Also unlike Michigan, it’s hard to point to a few areas of Republican weakness that Democrat operatives would target. The President’s victory in 2016 was due to widespread gains. Out of 67 counties in the state, he gained votes in 63 of them versus Senator Romney in 2012. His average vote gain was 4,333. The largest gain was 20,363, in Luzerne County.

All data in this post was sourced from the Pennsylvania Department of State


Any opinions or forecasts contained herein reflect the personal and subjective judgments and assumptions of the author only. There can be no assurance that developments will transpire as forecasted and actual results will be different. The accuracy of data is not guaranteed but represents the author’s best judgment and can be derived from a variety of sources. The information is subject to change at any time without notice.