The Off-Stage Battle to Sign Up Voters

July 07, 2016

Political junkies are watching Hillary Clinton celebrate not getting indicted and Donald Trump bizarrely praise Saddam Hussein for killing “terrorists,” as both candidates ramp up attacks on each other. Meanwhile, the election’s foundation is being shaped largely out of sight as both parties work at registering every possible supporter.

There were roughly 235 million Americans of voting age in 2012, of which 153 million were registered, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. The 81 million Americans who didn’t register were a little younger, somewhat more diverse, and less interested in politics. The number of unregistered Americans has only increased since 2012. Republicans and Democrats can draw many more supporters from this pool, but they must first be identified and registered, then persuaded to turn out.

In six battleground states, Republicans have improved their registration numbers since 2012, according to state election officials. In Florida—a must-win for Republicans—the GOP has gained a net of 114,126 registrations since 2012 while Democrats have lost 184,833, for a potential swing of 298,959 votes. President Barack Obama won Florida in 2012 by 74,309.

According to the latest numbers available, Republicans have added 30,014 net new registrants in Arizona (which Mitt Romney carried by 208,422) while Democrats have lost 12,520. In North Carolina (which Mr. Romney captured by 92,004), while there are 34,968 fewer registered Republicans (leaving roughly two million), Democrats dropped 207,278 to 2.65 million.

Republicans also gained since 2012 in three states Mr. Obama won: Iowa (Republicans added 7,829 while Democrats dropped 26,300), Nevada (GOP up 22,029 as Democrats increased by only 1,603) and Pennsylvania (Republicans added 25,123 while Democrats slid 191,793).

Ohio doesn’t have partisan registration: Voters there are considered party members based on which primary they voted in during the past six years. With this year’s GOP primary 61% bigger than the previous best, there are now 2.25 million Buckeye Republicans, compared with 1.45 million Democrats. Those numbers include 300,000 new Republicans who never voted in either primary and 115,000 Democrats who switched parties, according to state GOP Chairman Matt Borges. He is also directing an ambitious GOP registration program that is within 90,000 new voters of its target. Meanwhile, registration in the Democratic stronghold of Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) is down 60,973 since 2012.

The GOP is not faring as well in every battleground state. While Republicans outnumber Democrats in Colorado as of July 1 (988,453 to 980,393), the GOP’s advantage has dropped 8,060 since 2012. In New Hampshire, Republicans have expanded their registration advantage over Democrats, but only by 1,277 in a state Mr. Obama carried by 39,643.

Trends are harder to discern in battleground states without partisan registration like Georgia, Virginia and Wisconsin. County and precinct data suggests Georgia remains Republican, Virginia is becoming more Democratic and Wisconsin is highly polarized and little changed from 2012, when Mr. Obama carried it 53% to 46%.

Even where the GOP has been successful in registration, maximizing Republican turnout is not enough to flip states. Take Pennsylvania, where GOP increases and Democratic declines have combined to produce a 216,916 shift toward Republicans since 2012. But Mr. Obama won the state by 309,840: Mr. Trump would need to convince 100,000 more Pennsylvania independents and Democrats to back him while carrying all the voters Mr. Romney won and the newly registered Republicans.

The number of independents has increased more than Democrats or Republicans in six of eight battleground states that offer an unaffiliated option—Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire and North Carolina—and make up from a quarter to a third of most states’ registration rolls. To win the White House, Team Trump must understand which of those independents are persuadable and work them.

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