This month’s newsletter discusses how the partisan identity of the state’s voters seems to have swung toward Republicans, as seems to be happening nationally. We compare party identification with longer-term trends in party registrations to help set the context for the upcoming mid-term elections. At the moment, we see the 2022 electoral context benefiting Republican candidates. The key political question over the next few months is whether Democrats can make up some of the ground they’ve lost.
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Changing Partisan Identities
Anyone with even a passing interest in politics has heard quite a bit about political polarization and how hardened and virulent the attitudes of partisans are toward those in the other party. But the talk and data about polarization masks something we also know about voters--in the aggregate, the partisan identity of the public changes.
Gallup has been tracking the partisan identities of adults for decades and their data provides clear evidence that partisan affinities change. Gallup's most recent assessment of adults' partisan identities notes that a sizable and atypical shift in partisan identification took place during 2021. Gallup notes that:
Americans' political party preferences in 2021 looked similar to prior years, with slightly more U.S. adults identifying as Democrats or leaning Democratic (46%) than identified as Republicans or leaned Republican (43%). However, the general stability for the full-year average obscures a dramatic shift over the course of 2021, from a nine-percentage-point Democratic advantage in the first quarter to a rare five-point Republican edge in the fourth quarter.
Partisan Identification and Voter Registration in Pennsylvania in 2021
The partisan identities of Pennsylvania voters also changed significantly in 2021, following a pattern similar to national changes (see Figure 1). In F&M Polls conducted during 2020, an average of 47 percent of the state's registered voters identified as Democrats, 44 percent identified as Republican and 7 percent identified as independent. F&M Polls conducted during 2021 found an average of 42 percent identifying as Democrats, 47 percent identifying as Republican, and 9 percent identifying as independent. Republicans had an advantage in every poll we conducted in 2021, but the greatest gap, which coincided with the national changes noted above, came after August and reflected increased concerns about inflation, a COVID resurgence, and the troop pullout from Afghanistan. Our October Poll found that about one-third of voters changed their minds about President Biden's performance and that these were the main reasons they did so.
This distribution of partisans is different than the distribution of registered voters in the state, which is typical. Scholars consistently find that Republican and Democratic registration figures often differ from what is found by state surveys when partisan identity is measured. On Election Day 2020, Democrats had a 7.6 point (46.5 percent to 38.9 percent) registration advantage that didn't look much different on Election Day 2021 when it was 6.9 points (46.1 percent to 39.2 percent).
Plotting party registrations in Pennsylvania since 2000 shows that party registration changes, sometimes dramatically.[i] Between 2007 and 2008, the economic meltdown caused by the housing crisis and the relatively low job approval ratings of President Bush drove sharp changes in party registration in the state. In 2000, Democrats had a 5.9 point registration edge that had swelled to 14.3 points by 2009. Despite a slow rate of change being the norm, the huge Democratic advantage in voter registration that emerged in 2008 and 2009 for Democrats has steadily diminished.
This decline in Democratic registration came despite population growth that would seem to favor Democrats. We noted in our October newsletter:
The state's most urban counties have lost some of their political punch while the large fringe metros that surround them have grown consistent with their population at the same time that they have tilted toward Democrats. The three most rural county types have increased their political punch relative to their population growth and have moved overwhelmingly toward the Republican Party.
Note that the registration figures in the October article come from Election Day registrations and not the Department of State annual reports as used for this article.
Partisan identification and party registration are two slightly different things, although both measure the same idea. Partisan identification measures a voter's psychological attachment to a party, while voter registration measures a factual condition. The difference in the way questions about identification and registration are asked makes it easier to see the differences.[ii]
The difference between identification and registration tells us that some voters do not think of themselves as their registration would suggest. Perhaps these people confront social or job pressures to register with a party, or perhaps they want to vote in the primary of the party that is more dominant in their area. Registering to vote in primary elections can be compelling in a state like Pennsylvania that has closed primaries. Of course, there might also be dissatisfaction with the party's performance that could trigger a rethinking of partisanship as well.
Whatever the reasons, the general change in voter registration and partisan identity that happened in 2021 is clear. Table 1 shows party registration compared to partisan identification in August 2020 and August 2021. The bold percentages in Table 1 represent those voters whose registration and identities align. Republicans seem more firmly committed psychologically to their registration in 2021 than they were in 2020, independents' perspectives have shifted a bit toward Republicans, and more Democrats see themselves aligned with Republicans than as independents. [iii]
Academics do not fully agree on the speed at which partisanship changes, nor is there consensus about how short-term assessments of presidential performance or the economy effect this change, but there is little doubt that partisan identities do change. The changes we saw in Pennsylvania during 2021, particularly after August, show that partisan identity moved in favor of Republicans. In Pennsylvania, Democratic identifiers dropped by 4.8 percent while Republican identifiers increased by 2.5 percent and independents increased by 2 percent from 2020 to 2021.
And these changes don't just show up in the polling data. Changes in voter registration, though not moving at the same pace as partisan identification, continued a long-term movement toward the Republican Party.
The electoral stakes for 2022 are tremendous, with control of the Governor's Office, the US Senate, US House and even the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in play. Every contested race is vital for each party's near term agenda, but at this point it seems that the Democratic brand has fallen in Pennsylvania. Whether it can get back up is not clear.
References & Resources
2021 is official registration for the November election.
[ii] Party identification asks, "In politics, as of today, do you think of yourself as a Republican, a Democrat, or an independent?" Those who say Republican or Democrat are asked if they, "Would you call yourself a strong (Republican/Democrat), or a not very strong (Republican/Democrat)?" Independents are asked, "Do you think of yourself as closer to the Republican or Democratic Party?" Party registration simply asks, "Many people are registered to vote; however, many others are not. How about you? Are you currently registered to vote at your present address?" Registered votes are then asked, "Are you currently registered as a Democrat, a Republican, an independent, or something else?"
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