By JENNIFER STEINHAUER
Rebecca Cathcart contributed reporting.
© 2008 New York Times News Service
Well before Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain rose to the top of their parties, a partisan shift was underway at the local and state level. For more than three years starting in 2005, there has been a reduction in the number of voters who register with the Republican Party and a rise among voters who affiliate with Democrats and, almost as often, with no party at all.
While the implications of the changing landscape for Obama and McCain are far from clear, voting experts say the registration numbers may signal the beginning of a move away from Republicans that could affect local, state and national politics over several election cycles. Already, there has been a sharp reversal for Republicans in many statehouses and governors’ mansions.
In several states, including the traditional battlegrounds of Nevada and Iowa, Democrats have surprised their own party officials with significant registration gains. In both of those states, there are now more registered Democrats than Republicans, a flip from 2004. No states have switched to the Republicans over the same period, according to data from 26 of the 29 states in which voters register by party. (Three of the states did not have complete data.)
In six states, including Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Iowa, the Democratic piece of the registration pie grew over three percentage points, while the Republicans’ share declined. In only three states – Kentucky, Louisiana and Oklahoma – did Republican registration rise while Democratic registration fell, but the Republican increase was less than a percentage point in Kentucky and Oklahoma. Louisiana was the only state to register a gain of more than one percentage point for Republicans as Democratic numbers declined.
Over the same period, the share of the electorate that registers as independent has grown at a faster rate than Republicans or Democrats in 12 states. The rise has been so significant that in states like Arizona, North Carolina and Colorado, nonpartisan voters essentially constitute a third party.
Swings in party registration are not uncommon from one year to the next, or even over two years. Registration, moreover, often has no impact on how people actually vote, and people sometimes switch registration to vote in a primary, then flip again come Election Day.
But for a shift away from one party to sustain itself – the current registration trend is now in its fourth year – is remarkable, researchers who study voting patterns say. And though comparable data are not available for the 21 states where voters do not register by party, there is evidence that an increasing number of voters in those states are also moving away from the Republican Party based on the results of recent state and congressional elections, the researchers said.
“This is very suggestive that there is a fundamental change going on in the electorate,” said Michael P. McDonald, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an associate professor of political science at George Mason University who has studied voting patterns. He added that, more typically, voting and registration patterns tend to even out or revert to the opposing party between elections.
Dick Armey, the former House majority leader and one of the designers of the so-called Republican Revolution of 1994, said: “Obviously, these are not good numbers for the party to be looking at. Democrats have always had extremely broad, multifacted registration programs.”
But in terms of the presidential election, Armey said the tea leaves were harder to read.
“I think the key in this one is, where do all these new independent voters break?” he said. “I think right now, you’ve got a guy in western Pennsylvania saying, ‘I am really disgusted right now, and I’m not going to register as a Republican anymore, but I really don’t want this guy Obama elected.”'
Those in charge of state Democratic parties cite a national displeasure with the Bush administration as an impetus for the changing numbers, which run counter to a goal of Karl Rove, President Bush’s former top adviser, to create a permanent realignment in favor of Republicans.
“I think nationally and here, people are kind of tired of the way this administration has been conducting the policies of this country,” said Pat Waak, chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party.
Yet while an unpopular war, a faltering economy and a president held in low esteem have certainly combined to hurt the Republican Party, Democrats are also benefiting from demographic changes, including the rise in the number of younger voters and the urbanization of suburbs, which has resulted in a different political flavor there, voting and campaign experts said. The party has also been helped by a recent willingness to run more pragmatic candidates, who have helped make the party more appealing to a broader swath of the electorate.
Among the 26 states with registration data, the share who have signed on with Democrats has risen in 15 states since 2004, and rose among Republicans in six states, according to state data. The number of registered Democrats fell in 11 states, compared with 20 states where Republican registration numbers fell. In the 26 states and the District of Columbia where registration data were available, the total number of registered Democrats increased by 214,656, while the number of Republicans fell by 1,407,971.
The unsettled political ground has manifested itself in state and local elections. There are now 23 state legislatures controlled by Democrats and 14 by Republicans, with 12 states with divided chambers (Nebraska has a nonpartisan, unicameral legislature). After the 2000 election, there were 16 state legislatures dominated by Democrats, and 17 by Republicans, with 16 divided.
It is a similar story in governors’ mansions. After the 2004 election, there were 28 Republican governors and 22 Democrats; those numbers are now reversed. After the 2000 election, there were only 19 Democratic governors.
Elected Democrats have made significant inroads even in places where Republicans have enjoyed a generation of dominance. In Colorado, for example, Democrats control the governorship and both houses of the state legislature for the first time in over four decades. Last year, Virginia Democrats gained a 21-19 majority over Republicans in the state senate, the first time the party has controlled that body in a decade.
In New Hampshire, Democrats are in control of both the legislative and executive branches for the first time since 1874. In Iowa, Democrats have taken over the statehouse and the governor’s office simultaneously for the first time in a generation.
The changes in state government could have broad implications for congressional redistricting and on policies like immigration, health care reform and environmental regulation, which are increasingly decided at the state level.
In many states, Democrats have benefited from a rise in younger potential voters, after declines or small increases in the number of those voters in the 1980s and '90s. The population of 18- to 24-year-olds rose from about 27 million in 2000 to nearly 30 million in 2006, according to Census figures.
Obama’s candidacy has drawn many young people to register to vote, and some of the recent gains by Democrats have no doubt been influenced by excitement over his campaign. But even before Obama’s ascendancy among Democrats, younger voters were moving toward the Democratic Party, demographers said.
Dowell Myers, a professor of policy, planning and development at the University of Southern California, also noted that a younger, native-born generation of Latinos who have a tendency to support Democrats is coming of age.
Further, young Americans have migrated in recent years to high-growth states that have traditionally been dominated by Republicans, like Arizona, Colorado and Nevada, which may have had an impact on the changing registration numbers in those places.
The changing face of many American suburbs has also had in impact both in voter registration and voting patterns. In many major metropolitan areas, suburbs that were once largely white and Republican have become more mixed, as people living in cities have been priced out into surrounding areas, and exurban regions have absorbed those residents who once favored the close-in suburbs of cities.
“What we speculate is that density attracts Democrats,” said Robert Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, who has researched voting patterns. “It is not that people move to those areas and change positions. It tends now to be a self-selection of singles, childless couples,” who tend to vote Democrat more than their married-with-children counterparts.
In the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas, Democrats carried nearly 60 percent of the congressional vote in 2006 in inner suburbs, up from about 53 percent in 2002, according to Lang’s research.
This trend is particularly evident in places like St. Louis, southern Pennsylvania and Fairfax County, Va., which Bush won in 2000 but lost in 2004.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who won her seat in 2006, picked up the large majority of voters in the St. Louis and Kansas City metropolitan areas, and Sen. Jim Webb, also a Democrat, won his seat in a similar manner in Virginia, which has not voted for a Democrat for president since 1964.
Democrats have also succeeded, at least in part, by running centrist candidates where they are most needed. Bill Ritter, the Democratic governor of Colorado and former district attorney of Denver, opposes abortion rights. Among the men who flipped three of Indiana’s eight congressional seats in the midterm election in 2006, two also oppose both abortion rights and gun control.
What the demographers, political scientists and party officials wonder now is whether the shift of the last few years will be sustained.
“Major political realignment is not just controlling the branches of government,” said McDonald of the Brookings Institution. “It is when you decisively do it. We haven’t seen that in modern generations.”© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.