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Pa. Republicans are gaining on Democrats in registered voters. We look at what that really means.

A detailed analysis of Pennsylvania voter registration data over two decades shows a state that is accelerating long-term political shifts along geographic and demographic lines.

Republican campaign yard signs last Saturday in Fayette County, in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Republican campaign yard signs last Saturday in Fayette County, in Southwestern Pennsylvania.Read moreRebecca Droke/For the Inquirer

A local Republican Party in Southwestern Pennsylvania has a quote attributed to Samuel Adams on its website: “It does not take a majority to prevail … but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.”

The Fayette County GOP might consider an update.

Registered Republicans surpassed Democrats in Fayette this summer, making it the last county in the rapidly reddening region to flip to a GOP voter edge. The inversion reflects and continues years-long changes to voter registration across the battleground state. And despite close interest in the numbers ahead of critical races for governor and Senate, the narrowing edge for Democrats is actually a lagging indicator of Pennsylvania voters in Fayette and elsewhere who have long voted Republican regardless of their party affiliation.

A decade ago, Pennsylvania Democrats outnumbered Republicans by one million registered voters, or about 13 percentage points. This year it’s down to 540,000, about six percentage points.

Voter registration doesn’t necessarily predict how someone will vote, let alone the winners of individual elections. But gains allow parties to more effectively engage voters inclined to support them, and changes can reveal electoral trends.

A detailed Inquirer analysis of voter registration data over two decades shows a state that is accelerating long-term political shifts along geographic and demographic lines, with promise and peril for both sides:

  1. Republicans have added voters across Pennsylvania, in virtually every county that isn’t anchored by or near a large city. Much of the growth is in small or medium-size counties.

  2. Many new Republicans are Democrats and independents who switched parties and have likely already been voting Republican for years.

  3. Democrats have far fewer party-switchers coming their way, and are instead pulling in new voters, especially young ones. That long-running trend spiked after the Supreme Court decision overturning a constitutional right to abortion.

  4. Democrats have lost ground in much of the state but are strengthening and consolidating in cities and suburbs.

  5. A steadily rising number of voters — now 1.3 million, or about 15% of the electorate — are registering as independent or with a third party, even though they often vote for Democrats or Republicans.

In the last two years, more than twice as many voters switched their registration to join the Republican Party than to leave it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean those people are changing how they vote. It’s often the last step in a voter’s political change.

“It tends to be the end of a journey to a different party rather than the beginning,” said Lara Putnam, a University of Pittsburgh professor who studies Pennsylvania elections. “But at the same time, the people who bother to change — because they’re more attuned to politics — can be the canary in the coal mine indicators of broader trends.”

The consolidation of registered Democratic voters in cities and suburbs, and Republicans’ growth almost everywhere else, was augmented by past elections. Barack Obama’s historic candidacy generated enormous spikes in Democratic registrations, and some of the party’s slide in recent years is actually a return to a pre-Obama normal. On the right, Donald Trump accelerated the departure of white working-class Democrats to the GOP.

Republicans are gaining in all but the biggest counties

Southwestern Pennsylvania used to be blue. Democrats as recently as 2015 outnumbered Republicans by more than 2-1 in Fayette County, which sits about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh and borders West Virginia.

But as industry faded, labor unions lost much of their political influence. As coal, steel, and glass jobs disappeared, good-paying work grew harder to come by, and the population declined.

“Young men and women going to college, they didn’t stay in the area,” said George Rattay, who chairs the Fayette Democratic Party. Rattay, 75, noted that the county is now home to a large percentage of seniors.

As Republicans saw registration gains over the last decade, some of the biggest growth was in counties that are small but not tiny — places where they really added up.

A decade ago, the two major parties were almost evenly split in the 15 counties that, like Fayette, had between 50,000 and 100,000 voters. By the 2020 election, Republicans had a 20-percentage-point registration edge in the same counties.

As the economy and demographics changed in Southwestern Pennsylvania, so did politics.

“Western Pennsylvania is home to so many working men and women — blue-collar folks, and people that have been Democrats their entire lives because their parents and grandparents were Democrats,” said Allegheny County GOP chair Sam DeMarco.

Of the almost 36,000 Republicans in Fayette County today, 5.7% are newly registered voters and 5.8% have switched parties since 2020. Statewide, about 60% of voters who registered Republican since this year’s primary have been party-switchers, compared with about a third of new Democrats.

But the change in Fayette, like across the state, appeared first in actual votes. While the county looks evenly split, the GOP has been increasingly winning elections for years. Fayette barely voted for Republican Pat Toomey for Senate in 2010 but in 2012 gave Mitt Romney 54% of its presidential vote. Two-thirds of voters backed Trump in 2016 and 2020.

Changes at the top of the ballot are starting to trickle down.

Republican support in presidential races didn’t initially translate to success down ballot.

Fayette backed Sen. Bob Casey, a Democratic incumbent, by 3 percentage points in 2012, the same year it supported Romney by 9. It handed Democrat Tom Wolf a 16-point edge in the 2014 governor’s race before delivering a 31-point win for Trump in 2016.

Dave Lohr, a Republican, ran for county commissioner every four years starting in 1995. He remembers it being hard to find Republican signatures to get on the ballot. He finally won in 2015.

“Now it’s more on the conservative side than moderate,” Lohr said of Fayette. “We’re a Republican county.”

When voting allegiance changes, it’s first reflected at the top of the ballot — think presidential and some statewide races. Voters may have more direct exposure to local officials, who tend to focus more on local issues. Candidates at the top of the ballot also tend to reflect the party nationwide.

As Putnam described it: “The common way that political change happens … is that someone says, ‘Well that presidential candidate and the things they’re saying, I don’t believe that. But Sen. Casey, he’s still our kind of Democrat.’”

Pam Snyder won elections for 10 years as a Democratic state representative in a Republican district that includes part of Fayette. When Trump won two-thirds of her district in 2020, Snyder still won reelection with 53% of the vote.

Snyder, who is retiring this year, focused on issues like infrastructure and expanding rural broadband. Now Richard Ringer, a former journalist, is running to be the lone Democrat elected to Harrisburg who hails from the southwest. The 51st state House District is slightly more favorable to Democrats by registration than Fayette as a whole, and Ringer said voters have asked him often about abortion since the June Supreme Court ruling.

“After [the decision] came out it was just, ‘What’s your stance on abortion?’” Ringer said. “Men, women, older people, younger people. That’s top of mind and I think that’s going to be an advantage for Democrats.”

After that ruling, there was a surge in new voters, especially women and Democrats. The short-term boost has not changed the overall picture, but it shows how major political events can drive voter action.

Similarly, thousands of Republican voters left the party after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Democrats are consolidating in big counties like the Philly suburbs

As Republicans are growing in the places that are shrinking, Democrats are growing in the places that are growing.

The party has significantly increased its voter rolls in the Philadelphia suburbs, a region of population growth that had already been shifting Democratic in elections for well over a decade.

In Delaware County, Democrats won County Council seats in 2017 for the first time in history, then two years later won control of a county Republicans had run since before the Civil War. In Chester County, Democrats won races for supervisors, mayors, and borough councils last year.

“And that was a year that was not supposed to be friendly to Democrats,” Chester County Democratic chair Charlotte Valyo said.

Valyo, who has lived in the county for 30 years, saw a noticeable shift when Obama was elected. “He attracted the moderate Republicans that formerly wouldn’t consider voting for a Democrat,” she said. “And I think a lot of them stayed.”

But she also recognizes what the registration map looks like, as red blankets the largest geographic land area and a handful of Democratic counties, the most populous ones in the state, add new voters.

“The middle of the state is not turning around as quickly as we are,” she said. “Which puts pressure on the Democratic Party’s committees in the area where there is growth.”

The flip side of party-switching mostly helping Republicans is that new registrations favor Democrats.

Since the 2020 election, there are about seven new-voter Democrats for every one party-switcher who became a Democrat.

“We’ve always been at a disadvantage, because typically every year you get about 125,000 youngsters who graduate [statewide] from high school, and they register to vote, and many register as Democrats,” said DeMarco, the GOP chair in Allegheny.

Of new Pennsylvania voters, Democrats tend to be younger than Republicans. Eve Ramsey registered as a Democrat in Montgomery County on her 18th birthday last year. Ramsey said coming out as gay, watching television coverage of the Capitol attack, and then seeing the Supreme Court overturn abortion rights motivated and scared her.

“It’s a scary time right now. … If I want to marry a woman, I’m scared that in the future that I won’t be able to,” she said.

Youth voter turnout has been historically unreliable. But Democrats point to issues like abortion as an indication that young people are more motivated this year.

Ramsey said she plans to vote in the fall: “It feels personal. … I can finally speak for myself.”