A Democrat in the governor’s mansion. A Democratic majority on the state Supreme Court. And two elected Democrats in the U.S. Senate for the first time since 1947. (Republican Arlen Specter switched parties).
The Pennsylvania GOP entered 2024 knowing it had a lot of work to do — particularly in the Delaware Valley.
And early voter registration numbers show they’re making progress. Modest, perhaps, but progress nonetheless.
Official voter registration totals from Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties show party registration is growing, though Democrats still lead in overall registration totals.
The appetite of the electorate may be why Pennsylvania’s major parties both saw their numbers rise.
“I’m a firm believer that your voter registration status is a lagging indicator of where you are politically,” GOP strategist Chris Nicholas of Eagle Consulting told DVJournal. “It takes a while for you to say, ‘You know what? I’ve been registered X, but I’ve been voting Y the last bunch of years, so maybe I should become Y.”
National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Mike Marinella has a more aggressive explanation.
“The word ‘Democrat’ means something different to Pennsylvanians now than it did years ago. The Democrat Party has become too extreme for the voters of the Delaware Valley. Voters feel the impact of extreme Democrats’ failed policies every day as prices get higher, crime is on the rise, and families are being torn apart by fentanyl.”
Delaware Valley Republicans made most of their gains in Bucks County, with GOP registrations rising from 193,123 last May to 195,000 today. Democrat registrations fell from 198,487 to 197,853, leaving them with a narrow advantage of fewer than 3,000 votes.
Compare that to a decade ago, when during the 2014 general election, Democrats had a solid 186,865 to 174,666 advantage over Bucks County Republicans.
“The whole thing is just dissatisfaction with what’s happening in Washington,” Bucks County Republican Party chair Pat Poprik told DVJournal. “It’s driving [formerly registered Democrats] to either the third party or to us. But it’s one common thing: We’re all watching this county.”
Bucks County Democratic Executive Director Zach Kirk did not respond to a request for comment.
There are about 80,000 unaffiliated and third-party registered voters in Bucks, up from 78,382 last May.
Other counties also saw GOP growth as well.
In Chester County, GOP registration rose from 149,567 in May to 151,505. But Democratic registrations rose, too, from 156,994 to 158,604. While that margin means Republicans can be competitive, it’s also a reminder of how far the party has fallen from 2014, when the GOP had a 148,355 to 126,551 advantage.
Other Chester County registrations include 18 voters with Conservative Party affiliations; 10 registered as Independent Republicans, and two voters total registered as ‘GOP’ and ‘Trump’ parties. There are also six Socialists, 14 Independent Democrats, two Democratic Socialists, and one each for Communist, Obama, Socialist Party USA, and the Socialist Progressive Parties.
Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s long-forgotten Forward Party had one registered voter.
For Montgomery County, the Republican Party added about 1,000 voters, bringing its total to around 204,000. Democrats saw a similar rise, going from 301,543 to 302,330. That 100,000 Democratic advantage is about twice as big as it was a decade ago. Holding steady in Montgomery County is progress for the GOP.
In Delaware County, however, the roles — and rolls — are reversed. Democratic registrations rose from 201,616 to 203,316, while GOP numbers ticked up from by fewer than 1,000 votes to 146,224. In 2014, Democrats had just a 172,601 to 168,744 lead.
The net result is a GOP that’s gaining but is still far behind. And, adds Jeff Jubelirer of Bellevue Communications Group, registrations don’t necessarily translate into votes.
“Most people don’t change their registration, even if they change their ideology. You look at the coalition that helped elect Donald Trump in 2016. Many of those same people were blue-collar Democrats who are now much more Republican.
“Did some change their registration? Sure. But I think a number of folks may be still registered as Democrats but are voting Republican,” Jubelirer added.
He said there are also moderate Republicans who generally find themselves supporting Democrats more than they had in the past. “They’re more the Reagan Republicans and the Mitt Romneys…the traditional country club business moderate.”
The Delaware Valley, once a GOP stronghold, has become largely blue. Jubelirer said migration from the heavily Democratic cities to the suburbs helped bring about the shift. That trend caused Democratic voter rolls to increase while Republicans lagged behind.
While much of the focus remains on the two major parties, trends show that unaffiliated voters are a force to be reckoned with nationwide. Gallup reported in January that 43 percent of Americans considered themselves independent. Republicans and Democrats were tied at 27 percent. That’s a historical low for Democrats and two points off the low of 25 percent for the GOP.
“Nobody wants to be a Republican or a Democrat anymore,” Nick Gillespie, editor-at-large of Reason magazine, told DVJournal. “These are dead parties that have ceased to represent the factions that they were created in the post-war era to represent. The independents are the place to go.”
The number is much smaller in Pennsylvania. According to Pennsylvania Department of State statistics, there are almost 1.3 million voters who belong to a Third Party or are registered Independent/No Affiliation.
It’s still a trend that analysts believe is worth noting.
“When I got active as a professional in politics here in the late 80s, the state was like seven percent independent,” said Nicholas. “And now it’s basically doubled that.”
Gillespie, who co-wrote a book called “The Declaration of Independents” in 2012, sees the change as something that started years ago. “This is a long-term structural trend that exists not just in the United States,” he said, pointing towards Brexit and the election of Emmanuel Macron as French president. “People are finally done with the zombie political and kind of cultural institutions of the postwar Europe.”