An historic spike in Democratic voter registrations in Pennsylvania could help Barack Obama cut into Hillary Clinton’s vote in Tuesday’s primary, robbing her of the big victory margin she needs to justify continuing the primary fight.
The changing party demographics also are contributing to an overall bluing of the Keystone State that could dim Republican John McCain’s hopes of competing there in the fall.
A county-by-county analysis by Politico suggests that the hard-fought primary between Obama and Clinton has accelerated an ongoing partisan shift in Pennsylvania that could soon move it out of the battleground presidential states and ripple across congressional races this fall, as well.
“We may have one or two more competitive presidential races, but I’m not sure what will come after that,” said Terry Madonna, a political scientist and director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll.
The first evidence of the changing Democratic demographics could be on display Tuesday.
According to the Secretary of State’s office, since January about 217,000 new voters have registered for the April 22 primary, the vast majority of whom signed up as Democrats.
In Philadelphia, by far the state’s largest city, more than 12,000 new Democrats were added to the rolls in the final week before the March registration deadline, compared to just 509 Republicans.
That statewide Democratic surge has been accompanied by a flood of party-switching. More than 178,000 voters have changed their party status since January — and the Democrats have captured 92 percent of those voters.
In Delaware County, a Philadelphia suburb once home to a storied Republican machine, nearly 14,000 voters have switched their party affiliation to Democratic since January compared to just 768 who became Republicans.
Those party-switchers now represent about 7 percent of the roughly 2 million Democratic voters expected to turnout Tuesday, said Madonna.
A poll of those switchers and new registrants released by Madonna last week found that Obama was the preferred candidate for 62 percent of them. Clinton insiders said they are also bracing for the same 60-40 split among newly registered Democrats.
Depending on turnout, Madonna said, those newcomers could help Obama cut a Clinton victory margin by 2 to 3 percentage points and keep her below a double-digit win that would breath new life into the hard-fought race.
“It’s another important factor working in his favor,” Madonna said.
Clinton is still favored to win the state. But Politico’s analysis illustrates how the geographic concentrations of new Democrats could make a difference, if turnout is high among them.
For instance, about 143,400 Democratic newcomers – including newly registered and party switchers — are in Philadelphia and its suburbs. Those numbers could help Obama wrack up big margins in what is considered his strongest turf.
About 28,400 of them are in or around Pittsburgh, an urban area Clinton needs to counter Obama’s Philly support. Another 30,000 of them hail from the generally smaller, conservative counties in the state’s northwest and southwest, a region that Clinton is hoping to draw Reagan Democrats back to the party and to her cause.
Finally, the Clinton-friendly sections of central Pennsylvania are now home to more than 70,000 of the Democrats’ new recruits, including more than 6,000 in Centre County which is home to Penn State University.
An area where Obama and Clinton are likely to battle for voters is the state’s northeast corridor. Those ten counties, ranging from Carbon to Wyoming, have recorded more than 40,000 newly registered Democrats and party switchers. In Lehigh County, for instance, Clinton is expected to have an edge in working-class Allentown. But Obama could tap a vein of votes from the host of small universities and liberl arts colleges based in the county.
Pennsylvania voters are allowed to switch their party affiliation back to a previous one after an election, and some of these voters may not stick with the Democratic nominee come November.
But history suggests many of them will. Gov. Ed Rendell lured about 20,000 moderate Republicans to switch parties in 2002 to help him beat Bob Casey, now a U.S. senator, in a bitter Democratic gubernatorial primary. Many of those voters have continued to support him, providing two easy general election wins.
The trend toward Democrats also had a big impact in 2006 when two of three Republican House incumbents from districts outside of Philadelphia were ousted.
This cycle, the last Republican standing outside Philly could be at greater risk. Chester County, the home turf of Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach, now has more than 17,900 new Democratic voters on its rolls. Republicans still hold an edge in Chester County, but there are 10,000 fewer of them compared to 2004.
Among the six counties that have flipped from Republican to Democratic majorities since 2004 are Bucks and Montgomery, two historic Republican suburban stalwarts that were once part of the foundation for statewide Republican victories.
In 2004, Bucks included 208,638 Republicans voters and 173,803 Democrats. Today, it has 181,696 registered Republicans – a drop of nearly 27,000 – and 185,381 Democrats – a gain of more than 11,500.
Meanwhile, eight Democratic counties are turning darker blue. Four years ago, there were 74,004 Democrats and 59,688 Republicans registered to vote in Easton’s Northampton County. Today, there are 96,978 registered Democrats compared to 68,759 Republicans.
The Politico analysis also found that about a half dozen Pennsylvania counties are now much more competitive.
In Delaware County, Republicans had a clear voter registration advantage four years ago, 213,030 to 131,317 respectively. Today, the margin is much tighter with 188,834 Republicans compared to 156,608 Democrats.
The upshot is that Democrats have managed to double their partisan advantage in the Keystone State to 1 million registered voters today compared to a 500,000 edge in 2004.
Secretary of State Pedro A. Cortes is trying to prepare both the county registrars and the voters for huge turnout – as much as 50 percent -- in the primary. In 2004, just 21 percent of the state’s Democrats showed up to vote in the primary.
“We have communicated to the counties what they know: this is a historic election, they are likely to see a larger percentage of voter participation,” said Cortes in an interview.
“We have advised that they ensure they provide adequate staffing and adequate ballots. I’m fairly sure they have heeded that advice,” he said. “People will face larger lines than they usually would for a primary. We’re asking our voters to prepare for that.”