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Trump is struggling, but Pennsylvania Republicans have an important advantage compared with 2016

Recent shifts in Pennsylvania voter registration have amplified a long-running realignment that is transforming politics across the state and has framed the electoral landscape for the battle between Trump and Joe Biden.

Howard Merrick, the GOP chairman in Schuylkill County, at party headquarters in Pottsville. Schuylkill County is one of 58 Pennsylvania counties where Republicans gained in voter registration numbers over the last four years.
Howard Merrick, the GOP chairman in Schuylkill County, at party headquarters in Pottsville. Schuylkill County is one of 58 Pennsylvania counties where Republicans gained in voter registration numbers over the last four years.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

It’s not 2016 anymore.

President Donald Trump and Joe Biden aren’t competing for the same composition of voters who won Trump the state four years ago. And despite Trump’s eroded political standing at the moment, at least in terms of which voters are joining which party, there’s good news for the GOP: Registration shifts across the state show Republicans gaining voters at five times the rate of Democrats.

Since the 2016 primary election, Republicans have added about 165,000 net voters, while Democrats added only about 30,000. Democrats still maintain an 800,000-voter edge over Republicans. But that’s down from 936,000 in 2016, when Trump still won the state by less than 1%.

“Look, the president won our state by 44,000-plus votes in 2016,” said Lawrence Tabas, chair of the Pennsylvania Republican Party. “We have since picked up and narrowed the gap between us and the Democrats [by 135,000]. So we were already ahead 44,000, and look what we’ve picked up. I predict we’re going to narrow the gap further between now and November.”

Of course, Trump is now an incumbent president politically hobbled by growing disapproval of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and protests against systemic racism. He is also facing an opponent in Biden who, polls show, is significantly less unpopular than Hillary Clinton was. So it remains to be seen how helpful any Republican tailwinds will be for Trump, who has plummeted in the polls nationally and in battleground states such as Pennsylvania.

The most recent shifts have both continued and amplified a long-running political realignment of the state that started years before Trump: Democrats continue to concentrate in a handful of populous counties, while Republicans are spread throughout less populous ones. That realignment has transformed politics across the state and framed the electoral landscape for the current battle between Trump and Biden.

Geographically, both parties now have near opposite bases. An Inquirer analysis of statewide voter registration data from the last four years shows Democrats are further consolidating support in the southeastern part of the state. While denser, more urban areas have been more Democratic for years, the shift in suburbs and even exurbs has led to greater concentration of Democratic strength.

Republicans are adding voters almost everywhere else in small- and midsize counties where registration gains add up.

Registration is only one metric. People register with parties for all sorts of reasons and do cross party lines on Election Day. Some of the Republican gains may reflect people who voted for Trump as Democrats now officially joining the GOP — not necessarily new Trump voters. And one in seven voters, or 14% of the electorate, is independent or third party.

But registration shifts also correlate with presidential voting. In the 2004 through 2016 elections, vote share for the two major parties’ nominees in Pennsylvania’s 67 counties moved in the same direction as voter registrations did 88% of the time.

And people who register with a party are more engaged with that party, more likely to vote for its candidates further down the ballot, donate, and volunteer.

Republicans gain across Pennsylvania

Since 2016, 57 Pennsylvania counties — including every county with fewer than 100,000 voters — shifted more Republican. Only 10 became more Democratic.

That includes areas that were already Republican, Democratic areas that are less so today, and politically mixed areas that became more Republican.

For example, Elk, Carbon, Mercer, and Westmoreland Counties changed enough that Republicans now outnumber Democrats. GOP leaders attribute that to Democrats switching parties.

“A lot of folks will vote one way but not change their registration,” said Josh Kivett, a former political director for the Republican National Committee, now a national GOP consultant. “When you go change your registration … that’s a statement. That’s saying, ‘I want to go vote with this party because they value and represent me.’”

As the Democratic Party became more liberal, Kivett said, it lost moderate voters in rural or exurban Pennsylvania.

» READ MORE: Joe Biden leads in a new Pennsylvania poll, but many are wary of ‘secret Trump voters’

One of the most dramatic examples of Republican gains is Westmoreland County. For decades, Westmoreland was a Democratic bastion, like many counties in Western Pennsylvania, made up of coal miners and factory workers. As industry left, allegiance to the Democratic Party once rooted in labor unions started to erode, said Scott Avolio, a former vice chair of the county GOP.

Westmoreland Republicans had started winning local elections before Trump, but his 2016 victory sealed the deal, Avolio said.

“The perception was the unions and the Democratic Party is for the working people and Republicans are for the rich,” Avolio said. “But those jobs fell away and people began to be more Republican.”

Avolio recalled getting “shellacked” himself when he ran for state Senate in 2004. Now the county is represented almost entirely by Republicans in Harrisburg.

Republican registration jumped by 10,200 voters over the last four years in Westmoreland County, while Democratic registration plummeted by 14,900.

State Rep. Jim Rigby experienced a similar shift in nearby Cambria County, where Democrats lost 7,200 voters in four years and Republicans gained 6,300. Rigby — a Republican in the former manufacturing hub of Johnstown — ran four times to unseat the incumbent Democrat in his district, finally winning in 2018. Now, in a district where Democrats still hold a slight voter-registration edge, he doesn’t even have a challenger this November.

“Our Democrats are pretty much in line with the majority of Republicans,” Rigby said. “Pro-life, Second Amendment. Hunting is big in this area, so those things were all there and people just got fed up and said, ‘I’m switching.’”

Rigby suspects that Republicans will continue to add voters. But he’s unsure of what will happen in the presidential election, given that Biden is not nearly as unpopular as Clinton was in the region. Rigby isn’t even sure whom he’ll vote for himself.

“In my district, there’s as many people that love him that hate him, and I won’t take a side,” Rigby said of Trump. “I think if Donald Trump would just be a little more humble, he would probably win over a lot more people.”

» READ MORE: An anti-Trump Republican group is courting ‘soft’ Trump supporters in Pennsylvania with $1 million in ads

The majority of Republican growth comes from adding up small increases across the state. Since 2016, Schuylkill County, a GOP stronghold, grew Republican registrations by about 3,700 voters. Some of those are new voters Trump brought into politics, said the party chair there, Howard Merrick. And a lot are former Democrats, whose registrations decreased by 4,000.

“The idea was that ... unionized workers would be more Democratic,” Merrick said. “In Schuylkill County, I don’t believe that to be the case. Trump has resonated among the working class and the middle class here.”

And it’s not just Republican counties seeing gains. Take Lackawanna, a longtime Democratic stronghold where Republicans are registering voters at a faster pace than Democrats. GOP chair Lance Stange said close to 1,000 Democrats switched parties so far this year. Of the 2,667 total voters added since November 2019, 72% are Republicans, he said.

That’s especially notable because Lackawanna County is home to Scrantonthe early childhood home of Biden, who hopes to reclaim disenchanted Democrats there. Trump came within 3.5 points of winning Lackawanna County in 2016. Local elections, typically dominated by Democrats, have been much closer in the years since.

“In the second-most Democratic county in ... the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, that shouldn’t happen,” Stange said. “But it’s happening.”

Democrats consolidate in Southeastern Pennsylvania

More than half of Pennsylvania’s Democrats live in just six counties: deep-blue Philadelphia; Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh but also its Republican suburbs; and the Philadelphia suburbs of Montgomery, Bucks, Delaware, and Chester Counties. Those six have an even greater share of Democrats today than four years ago.

That’s driven by the leftward march of the Philadelphia suburbs. And as the region has grown increasingly important for Democrats, it has also lost Republican voting power. Two decades ago, Philadelphia and its suburbs had about an equal share — one in three — of each party’s statewide voters.

Today, about 41% of the state’s registered Democrats live in the area — compared with just 25% of Republicans.

In Delaware County, where Democrats swept local elections in 2019, close to 19,000 Democrats registered with the party in the last four years, as Republicans lost 12,000 voters.

Colleen Guiney, chair of the Delaware County Democrats, said voters joined as a rejection of Trump’s candidacy in 2016 and his policies since then. Guiney said the local GOP completely embraced Trump, likely alienating some Republican voters.

“They could see the Democratic Party had a different agenda,” Guiney said.

State Sen. Sharif Street of Philadelphia, vice chair of the state’s Democratic Party, pointed to the success of progressive candidates as a hopeful sign.

“A lot of that independent vote isn’t what we used to see, which was independents as centrists,” Street said. “The Republican Party isn’t really an option for them.”

Street predicted that Republicans in suburban Philadelphia — voters who used to support such candidates as Tom Ridge and Arlen Specter — are fed up with Trump even if they haven’t left their party.

“I think after this election we’re going to be talking about Biden Republicans the way we used to talk about Reagan Democrats,” he said, recalling traditionally blue-collar Democrats who crossed over to support Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

Democrats in the rest of the state are just trying to hang on.

State Rep. Frank Dermody, who represents parts of Westmoreland and Allegheny Counties, said Democrats know they need voters from his region. New Republicans, he said, might be having buyer’s remorse.

“Your registered Republicans who don’t necessarily agree with the way Trump has managed — not just the pandemic but issues of race and divisiveness and then this government or... his demeanor — I believe that Joe Biden can bring some of them back to the party,” he said.

In Luzerne County, Republican registrations shot up in the last four years by 11,600 voters, while Democrats stayed about even.

» READ MORE: Trump and the RNC sued to tighten Pa. voting rules. Pennsylvania Democrats sued back.

Kathy Bozinski, chair of the Luzerne County Democrats, attributes the increase to Democrats — many of them older — switching parties. Her party’s registration numbers didn’t drop in tandem, though, because of an influx of new Democrats, many of them Black and Latino people moving into growing areas such as Hazleton.

To win in November, Democrats need to both turn out their base in the southeast and also bring out voters elsewhere in the state, Bozinski said. Those campaign pitches may sound different on doorsteps in West Philadelphia than they do in Westmoreland.

“If you really do the math, at the end of the day, if Democrats statewide truly do come out and vote, then I’m optimistic,” Bozinski said. “Even though we’re kind of breaking even here.”