Voter Registration Review: The changing complexion of Pa.’s voter rolls from 1998 to 2022

We’ve officially reached the dog days of summer, that small period of time we try so fervently to enjoy since it will be our final lull before an all-out sprint to the fall midterms. 

Therefore, I thought now would be the perfect time to switch up the formula a bit and take more of a long view of Pennsylvania’s voter registration trends. 

Thankfully for all of us, the Department of State’s website has registration statistics going all the way back to November 1998. Back then, Pennsylvania’s electorate was quite different from how it looks today. And by examining how we’ve changed we can gain some insight into our future. 

In 1998, when there were 7,258,822 voters in the commonwealth, the overall Democratic advantage was 442,671 (3,514,970 Democrats and 3,072,299 Republicans). Today, with 8,745,929 voters in PA, that advantage has grown by 98,353 to 541,024 (3,999,171 Democrats and 3,458,147 Republicans).

As a matter of fact, 62 of our 67 counties have more registered voters now than they did back in 1998. The five exceptions are Cambria, Cameron, Greene, McKean and Warren counties.

While these top-line results are intriguing, to get a real feel for these trends we’ll have to dive into the numbers region by region.

For this analysis, I compiled the numbers a bit differently than usual. The first set, presented in italics, are the margins as they stood in November 1998. Then the next set are the margins as they stood on July 11, 2022. The final set in parentheses are the differences between the 2022 and 1998 numbers.

Central:

November 1998
Blair: R+14,625
Centre: R+6,735
Clearfield: D+847
Columbia: D+1,225
Huntingdon: R+5,368
Juniata: R+1,955
Mifflin: R+3,324
Montour: R+859
Northumberland: D+952
Snyder: R+7,751
Union: R+5,727

July 2022 (Change from 1998)
Blair: R+26,911 (R+12,286)
Centre: D+1,582 (D+8,317)
Clearfield: R+14,918 (R+15,765)
Columbia: R+7,632 (R+6,407)
Huntingdon: R+11,112 (R+5,744)
Juniata: R+6,553 (R+4,598)
Mifflin: R+11,435 (R+8,111)
Montour: R+2,307 (R+3,166)
Northumberland: R+12,696 (R+13,648)
Snyder: R+9,977 (R+2,226)
Union: R+6,166 (R+439)

Right off the bat, you can see how much has changed over the past 24 years as ruby-red rural counties such as Clearfield, Colombia and Northumberland still had Democratic pluralities in 1998. At the same time, the one county in this region to go against the grain was Centre, which instead switched from red to blue. Centre County’s shift was mainly due to the college kids attending Penn State University, as young voters became significantly more Democratic during the Obama Era.

North Central

November 1998
Bradford: R+11,285
Cameron: R+221
Clinton: R+589
Elk: D+3,103
Lycoming: R+10,012
McKean: R+6,980
Potter: R+3,067
Sullivan: R+761
Tioga: R+8,761

July 2022 (Change from 1998)
Bradford: R+15,124 (R+3,839)
Cameron: R+963 (R+742)
Clinton: R+4,941 (R+4,352)
Elk: R+4,114 (R+7,217)
Lycoming: R+22,472 (R+12,460)
McKean: R+9,496 (R+2,516)
Potter: R+5,602 (R+2,535)
Sullivan: R+1,430 (R+669)
Tioga: R+11,529 (R+2,768)

Republicans’ recent rural strength might be best illustrated here, as they scored four-digit growth even in these sparsely populated areas. The GOP not only flipped Elk County, but maximized their support throughout the region. As recently as 2014, Gov. Tom Wolf was able to win Clinton County. But by 2018, even with a larger margin of victory statewide, he got swept there.

Northeast

November 1998
Carbon: D+2,951
Lackawanna: D+47,672
Luzerne: D+40,225
Monroe: R+1,965
Pike: R+5,013
Schuylkill: R+11,455
Susquehanna: R+6,573
Wayne: R+8,530
Wyoming: R+5,182

July 2022 (Change from 1998)
Carbon: R+5,822 (R+8,773)
Lackawanna: D+34,430 (R+13,242)
Luzerne: D+10,149 (R+30,076)
Monroe: D+11,601 (D+13,566)
Pike: R+6,292 (R+1,279)
Schuylkill: R+20,372 (R+8,917)
Susquehanna: R+9,468 (R+2,895)
Wayne: R+10,476 (R+1,946)
Wyoming: R+5,588 (R+406)

There’s a reason so many national political observers identified Luzerne County as prime Trump territory. Once a Democratic powerhouse, Luzerne is home to a steady stream of Republican converts. That same tide flipped Carbon County from blue to red and is threatening to break through to Lackawanna County, home of President Joe Biden’s beloved Scranton. Meanwhile Monroe County, a hot tourist destination in the Poconos, serves as the GOP-turned-Democratic outlier.

Northwest

November 1998
Clarion: R+1,678
Crawford: R+6,672
Erie: D+22,991
Forest: R+452
Jefferson: R+2,317
Mercer: D+6,094
Venango: R+5,013
Warren: R+3,638

July 2022 (Change from 1998)
Clarion: R+8,535 (R+6,857)
Crawford: R+13,707 (R+7,035)
Erie: D+16,457 (R+6,534)
Forest: R+957 (R+505)
Jefferson: R+12,091 (R+9,774)
Mercer: R+8,756 (R+14,850)
Venango: R+9,944 (R+4,931)
Warren: R+7,225 (R+3,587)

Like the North Central, the Northwest is a clean sweep for the GOP, at least in terms of gains. Back in 1998 Mercer was still home to a Democratic majority, yet in the years since it’s seen the strongest Republican growth in the region. Even in lakeside Erie County, Republicans have gained ground over the past quarter-century.

South Central

November 1998
Adams: R+9,571
Bedford: R+5,789
Cumberland: R+35,015
Dauphin: R+24,836
Franklin: R+16,923
Fulton: R+743
Lancaster: R+89,972
Lebanon: R+19,691
Perry: R+8,134
York: R+32,762

July 2022 (Change from 1998)
Adams: R+21,561 (R+11,990)
Bedford: R+17,110 (R+11,321)
Cumberland: R+27,282 (D+7,733)
Dauphin: D+12,202 (D+37,038)
Franklin: R+37,049 (R+20,126) 
Fulton: R+4,946 (R+4,203)
Lancaster: R+64,825 (D+25,147)
Lebanon: R+23,732 (R+4,041)
Perry: R+13,395 (R+5,261)
York: R+60,882 (R+28,120)

The South Central is really the first region so far to break with the trend of near-universal Republican gains. While the GOP still did well in places here, especially York County, the actual story is Democratic growth in Harrisburg and its suburbs across the Susquehanna River. Not only did Dems manage to flip Dauphin County, but they may one day add neighboring Cumberland County as well. Additionally, as I’ve noted a few times, Lancaster County also is quietly getting bluer too. 

Southeast

November 1998
Berks: D+5,791
Bucks: R+48,192
Chester: R+77,622
Delaware: R+126,853
Lehigh: D+2,903
Montgomery: R+110,339
Northampton: D+17,962
Philadelphia: D+502,888

July 2022 (Change from 1998)
Berks: D+2,752 (R+3,039)
Bucks: D+7,505 (D+55,697)
Chester: D+5,535 (D+83,157)
Delaware: D+52,993 (D+179,846)
Lehigh: D+28,846 (D+25,943)
Montgomery: D+95,194 (D+205,533)
Northampton: D+17,217 (R+745)
Philadelphia: D+679,588 (D+176,700)

The greatest transfer of them all, however, occurred in the Southeastern section of the state. With the exception of Berks County (which is more of a northeastern county in spirit) and toss-up Northampton County, Democrats posted massive gains throughout the region.

Furthermore, while the Dems did improve their margin in Philadelphia, it was the suburban collar counties that really fueled their growth here. Not only did all four flip from red to blue, but Montgomery and Delaware counties actually managed to outpace the gains in the city. Thanks primarily to the shifts in those four collar counties, Democrats have carried Pennsylvania in seven of the last eight presidential elections

Southwest

November 1998
Allegheny: D+299,234
Armstrong: D+2,247
Beaver: D+39,995
Butler: R+7,287
Cambria: D+28,406
Fayette: D+41,381
Greene: D+11,012
Indiana: D+1,001
Lawrence: D+12,093
Somerset: R+1,173
Washington: D+47,008
Westmoreland: D+66,100

July 2022 (Change from 1998)
Allegheny: D+264,174 (R+35,060)
Armstrong: R+13,332 (R+15,579)
Beaver: D+2,849 (R+37,146)
Butler: R+36,835 (R+29,548)
Cambria: R+7,242 (R+35,648)
Fayette: D+161 (R+41,220)
Greene: R+1,734 (R+12,746)
Indiana: R+10,863 (R+11,864)
Lawrence: R+4,725 (R+16,818)
Somerset: R+18,502 (R+17,329)
Washington: R+8,247 (R+55,255)
Westmoreland: R+25,338 (R+91,438)

The converse to the blue wave in the Southeast is the red flood in the Southwest, the familiar Appalachia-Acela divide I’ve mentioned so often before. 7 of these 12 counties have switched from blue to red since 1998, and another (Fayette) is set to join them in a few weeks. This was the bet Pennsylvania Democrats made in the 21st century, that they could win more votes in the Southeast than they lost in the Southwest. That gamble has paid off almost every time…with the notable exception of the 2016 presidential race.

In terms of gains since ‘98, the GOP’s top six counties are all in this region, with Westmoreland easily outpacing the rest. In fact, even in the blue oasis of Allegheny County, Democrats lost ground. These counties are the ones Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman is hoping to win back in his battle against Republican Mehmet Oz. Of course, that will be quite an uphill climb for the Fetterman, now the sitting lieutenant governor. After all, when he was on the ticket for Wolf’s landslide in 2018, they still only managed to win back Beaver County. 

Conclusion

In the waning days of the Clinton administration, the Democratic coalition was already changing in fundamental ways. Whereas the old party combined the big cities with the country’s vast rural areas, President Bill Clinton was winning the suburbs that had fueled the Reagan landslides of a decade past.

Over the next quarter-century, both in Pennsylvania and across the nation, Democratic support in rural areas plummeted. At the same time, Democrats began to target those suddenly receptive suburbs. By 2020, Joe Biden’s victory was mainly due to a strong suburban surge in Pennsylvania and other critical background states. 

All this begs the question: Should Pennsylvania Democrats try to win back these rural areas or should they only concern themselves with maximizing votes in the cities and suburbs?

We know how Fetterman feels, as the 2022 Democratic Senate nominee is on a crusade to win back as many formerly Democratic small towns as possible. Therefore, his match-up with Oz presents a fascinating test case. Should Fetterman fall short in this effort, Democrats will likely conclude that too many rural voters are beyond their grasp and that they must instead double-down on the suburbs.

After all, it’s quite challenging to fight the tides of history, and much easier to just go with the flow. 



Originally published at www.penncapital-star.com,by Nick Field

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