Party shifting favors Pa. GOP but hasn't stymied Dems in statewide races

Apr. 20—The partisan makeup of Pennsylvania's electorate is shifting as Republicans continue to cut into a gap of registered voters that remains favorable to Democrats.

The separation between the two parties fell to fewer than 396,000 voters ahead of Tuesday's primary election compared to more than 1 million a decade ago.

In that time, even as that gap narrowed, Democrats dominated statewide elections.

The blue party's nominees swept the governor's election three times, won both attorney general contests, won 2 of 3 U.S. Senate races, and split two elections each for auditor general, treasurer and U.S. president.

Democratic judicial nominees won more than twice as many head-to-head matchups for appellate courts compared to Republicans and in the 2022 election, Democrats flipped the state House majority that had belonged to the GOP for the prior 12 years.

"This has been a really good period for Democrats statewide and an awful period for Republicans," said Chris Borick, political science professor and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion.

And, still, Pennsylvania's Democratic Party is met with voter defections far outpacing that of the state Republican Party.

As of Monday, more than 18,240 Democrats left the party to join Republicans since the start of 2024. Compare that to the 5,800 Republicans who defected to the Democrats. Republicans have gained more independents, too, and outpace Democrats in defections so far this year in each of Pennsylvania's 67 counties.

The trend has borne out over time. Data from the Department of State from 2008 through 2023 show that compared to Democrats, Republicans gained 184,100 more voters who either switched parties, including third parties or ended their non-party affiliation.

The shift appears to be a regression to the mean, according to Berwood Yost, director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College.

He points back to 2000 when Democrats had a 6 percentage point advantage. That advantage swelled during the President George W. Bush administration, reaching 12 points entering the 2008 primary, for example. Ahead of Tuesday's primary, the advantage for Democrats is 5 points.

"If you take the historical long view, the parties are coming back into balance where they were at the beginning of the century," Yost said. "In a state as closely contested as Pennsylvania, it's almost inevitable that you'll return to that stasis."

Jessy Defenderfer, associate professor of political science at Commonwealth University-Bloomsburg, doesn't expect Republicans to overtake Democrats in voter registration in Pennsylvania. The commonwealth is a swing state, one that's highly competitive. Republicans could further approach a level of parity, she said, but in time she expects the party-shifting to level off.

Defenderfer points to the disparity between the parties with respect to registration of voters by age, particularly the Democrats' advantage in younger age groups including 18 to 24 and 25 to 34.

"These were already Republicans. It's so clear now," Defenderfer said of voters having switched from Democrat to Republican, aligning their partisan affiliation with how they've already been voting.

Sarah Niebler, associate professor of political science at Dickinson College, agreed with the idea that voters are settling their registration with their ballot choices.

"I think a lot of it is people bringing their partisan registration into alignment with their preexisting preferences," Niebler said.

There's no suspense at the top of Pennsylvania's primary election ballot this year. The nominees for president and U.S. Senate are all but confirmed. Down ballot there's plenty of intrigue in statewide races and certain districts for the General Assembly and Congress. But, it's the top-of-ballot that drives voters out during a presidential cycle, especially considering turnout is typically underwhelming at primary elections.

Niebler and Defenderfer each said they're interested in the eventual turnout Tuesday. For Defenderfer, she said it could signal the potential excitement for Trump's base in particular. Niebler wondered whether the down-ballot races such as the competition for Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Perry's seat in the 10th Congressional District would attract voters.

Daniel Mallinson, associate professor of public policy and administration at Penn State-Harrisburg, said he'll be interested to see the level of potential protest votes in both parties' presidential primary and whether that lack of competition will impact the outcome of the lower profile races that are highly competitive.

"Almost every year people complain about how late the Pennsylvania primaries are and that it doesn't matter, but it really doesn't matter this time around," Mallinson said specific to the presidential race.