© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute
Election Pennsylvania
Matt Rourke/AP

Republican Voter Registration Is Booming in Pennsylvania

Voter registration can be slippery, but Republicans are making steady gains in a state vital to this year’s presidential election.

In every single county in Pennsylvania, the number of registered Republicans has increased in the last five months. And in all but a handful, the number of Democrats has declined.

Altogether, there are over 40,000 more registered Republicans and nearly 10,000 fewer registered Democrats in the state than there were in November, according to data from the Pennsylvania secretary of state. In 2012, there were over 1 million more registered Democrats than Republicans. Today, the Democrats’ advantage is around 400,000.

Pennsylvania is a crucial state for President Joe Biden’s reelection chances — and one he won by only 80,000 votes in 2020. Party registration isn’t an exact indicator of who someone will vote for, but state Republicans say the numbers should be a sign of concern for Democrats.

“It is remarkable, and it’s one of those leading indicators, a canary in the coal mine kind of thing,” said Bill Bretz, chair of the Westmoreland County GOP and vice chair of the southwest caucus.

Pennsylvania Republicans have been on a yearslong effort to narrow the party registration gap. Between 2018 and 2022, Democratic registration dropped by 118,000, and Republican registration rose by nearly 200,000.

The problem for Democrats comes down to two regions of the state. In southwestern Pennsylvania, a traditionally blue area that has continued to trend red since 2016 (with the exception of Pittsburgh), more and more registered Democrats are changing their voter registration to Republican.

East of Pittsburgh, Westmoreland County was once a longtime Democratic stronghold. The two parties reached parity in 2019, but now Republicans have a 30,000-voter advantage over Democrats. There are 1,700 more Republicans than in November and over 700 fewer Democrats.

Neighboring Allegheny County is another prime example of the slow change. Democrats still have a significant advantage, but there’s nearly 400 fewer registered there in the last five months — and 2,800 more Republicans.

“Even in Allegheny, there’s been inroads there. It’ll take a long time, but you know, proportionately, they’re where we were 20 years ago,” Bretz said.

“Even as a gut-feeling kind of metric, I’m getting a couple of calls a day from folks looking to get information or register, which is pretty extraordinary for being so early in the cycle,” he said.

Biden has leaned on the suburbs of Philadelphia to make up for these long-term Democratic losses and Republican gains in more rural stretches of the state.

But in Bucks County, northeast of Philadelphia, there are nearly 2,300 more registered Republicans than there were in November, while the number of registered Democrats has remained close to the same.

And in Philadelphia County, which will undoubtedly go for Biden, the trends are also favorable to Republicans, with over 2,300 more Republicans and around 2,000 fewer registered Democrats.

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The yearslong trend toward Republicans is now being accelerated by automatic voter registration when getting or renewing a driver’s license, which went into effect in September. Data from the secretary of state has shown more new Republicans have registered to vote compared to Democrats since September.

And while the effect is statewide, some causes come down to county or regional politics. In Lehigh County, where there’s a competitive three-way Republican congressional primary, there are 1,400 more registered Republicans compared to November.

The steady gains for Republicans might not result in a seismic change this year. Voter registration status is a lagging indicator of political position, so many registered Democrats who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 may just be updating their registration to reflect how they’ve been voting for years.

Even if the voter registration numbers aren’t a perfect indicator of results, Cambria County Republican Chair Jackie Kulback said the party still benefits from the grassroots work of expanding Republican voter rolls and margins county by county as far as they will go.

Kulback had three volunteers at a time doing 12-hour shifts to register new voters for months before the 2016 election. At the time, Democrats had a 12,000-person advantage in a county of only 130,000. Now, Republicans outnumber Democrats by nearly the same margin.

“I thought we had gotten everybody who could possibly get registered Republican to register, and yet we’re still seeing people coming into our office,” Kulback said.

“It’s all about the momentum, getting people registered, making sure their friends and family are voting, and I think it’s this kind of snowball effect,” Kulback said. “I know we can deliver the county for President Trump. I have no doubt about it. The goal now is to just run up the score as much as we possibly can.”

Katherine Swartz is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.