Disappearing Democrats

Why Republicans are Winning Elections in Pennsylvania Despite a Voter Registration Deficit

In Pennsylvania, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by 445,000 voters. They have a 500,000 voter registration margin in Philadelphia and a 300,000 voter registration margin in Allegheny County, the state's two largest urban areas.

Yet the governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Ridge, is Republican. The state's two U.S. Senators and two of the State's three row officers are Republicans.  In the state legislature, Republicans hold 104 of 203 seats in the House, and 30 of 50 seats in the Senate.  Pennsylvania, long considered a competitive two-party state, is fast becoming dominated by Republican officeholders.

The question that arises from this stark contrast is obvious: how can the Democratic Party appear so strong in voter registration, yet produce such weak results? Or conversely, how can Republicans win so many seats when they trail so significantly in registered voters?

Some political analysts attribute the Democratic losses to lower voter turnout among Democrats. A greater percentage of Republicans than Democrats go to the polls, eroding the Democrat's numerical superiority, they say.  Other analysts theorize that a group of ""Reagan Democrats,'' conservative on issues like welfare spending and abortion limits, crosses party lines to vote Republican.

An unspoken assumption, of course, underlies both explanations: that voters faithful to the Democratic Party exist in superior numbers, sprawling across the Commonwealth like a sleeping tiger. Given the right candidate and the right issues, this line of thinking goes, Democratic voters will awake, voting with the full strength of their numbers, and deliver victory to their party.

But is this widely held assumption true? Are Democrats still the majority party in the state, as the voter registration rolls suggest?

Probably not, our research indicates, because Pennsylvania has many ""misaligned'' voters -- voters who have registered in one party but now see themselves as more closely attached to another.  In our poll of Pennsylvania voters, conducted during July, we found that one of every five (21%) voters is misaligned -- on the books as a member of a party which he or she no longer supports.  More significantly, twice as many misaligned voters are registered as Democrats (40%) or independents (39%) than as Republicans (22%).

When party membership is examined separately, eleven percent of Democrats say they relate more to Republicans, while only six percent of Republicans say they relate more to Democrats.  At the same time, half (49%) of independent voters say they are oriented to Republicans, while only a quarter (27%) feel attached to Democrats.

If state voter registration numbers are adjusted to reflect political orientation, Republicans outnumber Democrats by a 250,000 voter margin. The sleeping tiger becomes a paper tiger, and recent Republican electoral victories make sense.

Consider the 1997 judicial races for Supreme and Commonwealth Courts.  These races provide a good test of how voters have realigned because most voters knew little about the judicial candidates.  In races where voters have little information they tend to rely heavily on party affiliation as a voting cue.  Based on registration, the Democratic candidates should have prevailed, but in both races the Republican candidate won.

How do we know if someone is misaligned?  In our poll, we asked two standardized survey questions B ones that, while frequently asked, seldom appear together in the same survey.  Early in the survey we asked:  "Are you currently registered as a Democrat, a Republican, an independent, or something else?"  Later in the poll we asked: "In politics, as of today, do you consider yourself a Republican, a Democrat, or an independent?"

Table 1 shows the answers to those questions, and reveals the significant difference between nominal party registration and actual party orientation.  The party registration totals (bottom row) reflect the Democratic Party's nominal voter registration advantage.  The party orientation totals (right column), in contrast, show the actual voter advantage of the Republican Party.

As the boldfaced numbers indicate, 90% of Republicans identify with the Republican Party, 81% of Democrats are oriented to the Democratic Party, and 24% of independents are truly independent.  Or conversely,  a few Republicans (10%), more Democrats (19%) and most (76%) independent voters don't adhere to the political philosophy indicated by their registration.

Table 1  Party Orientation and Nominal Party Registration 

 Nominal Party Registration

Actual Party Orientation 
RepublicanI/OtherDemocrat Total

Republican/Lean Republican
90% (165) 49% (22)11% (21)50% (208) 
True Independent
4% (8) 24% (11)7% (14)8%   (33) 
Democrat/Lean Democrat
6%  (11) 27% (12)81% (154)42% (177)
44% (184)11% (45)45% (189)

When we asked people how they voted in recent elections, actual party orientation (Table 2) proved a better indicator of their choices--particularly for Democrats and independents--than did nominal party registration (Table 3).  (Our poll question: "Thinking about the last few state and national elections, which best describes how you voted: straight Democrat, mostly Democrat, a few more Democrats than Republicans, about equally for both parties, a few more Republicans than Democrats, mostly Republican, or straight Republican?").

 Table 2  Vote in Recent Elections by Actual Party Orientation

  Actual Party Orientation  

Recent VotesRepublicanI/OtherDemocrat
More Democrats5%14%78%
More Republicans78%25% 2%


Table 3  Vote in Recent Elections by Nominal Party Registration 

Nominal Party Registration  

Recent VotesRepublicanI/OtherDemocrat
More Democrats6% 20%72%
More Republicans79%43%4%

This research suggests that Pennsylvania voters have reorganized themselves to favor the Republican party, even though voter registration figures do not yet reveal the change.  Of course, additional research is needed to confirm these findings and to answer other underlying questions, such as: why did misaligned voters initially choose their nominal party registration? how long ago? when did they change their political orientation? why did they change their political orientation?  why haven't they changed their registration? and, is this reorganization permanent or temporary?

Even though more work is needed, it is not too soon to consider the implications for the parties, particularly Democrats.  From the perspective of improving the party performance, Democrats need to adopt the tactics of a minority party.  In the old days, Democrats simply needed to hold their core supporters together.  Today, they must go beyond them.  They need to come together, organize, and present a coherent message of opposition to their Republican opponents.  Democrats can no longer assume they are the natural majority in the state where get-out-the-vote efforts can ensure victory.  Democrats will need to attract more independent voters and voters who weakly identify with the Republican party.  This means the Democrats may need to offer voters more moderate candidates.  On the other hand, Republicans can feel confident that, for the time being, they represent the majority of the state's voters.