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Democrats Winning the Registration Wars

A Commentary By Rhodes Cook

The presidential debate season is just underway. The polls are in flux. The issue agenda--which has already shifted in the last month from the Sarah Palin effect to "lipstick on a pig" to the nation's worst economic crisis since the Depression--may shift again before Election Day.

But one important factor has remained constant: the Democrats' clear-cut advantage in the ongoing voter registration wars. Since President George W. Bush's reelection in 2004, the Democrats have registered nearly 1.3 million additional voters while the Republicans have lost nearly 800,000. This, as states prepare to close their registration rolls in advance of the general election.

Not every one of the newly minted Democrats is a sure vote for Barack Obama next month. Some crossed over from the ranks of Republicans and independents solely to cast a primary ballot for Hillary Clinton. But many of the new Democrats registered long before the primaries or since then, creating a large pool of likely new voters for Obama. They comprise a necessary asset for the Democratic nominee in offsetting some powerful factors that could work against him.

One is the racial question. How many votes will Obama lose solely because he is African American? The well-noted "Bradley (or Wilder) effect" indicates that the number could be substantial.

In the 1989 Virginia gubernatorial election, Democratic Lt. Gov. Doug Wilder was well ahead in the polls as Election Day approached, but he barely won. Race was considered a major reason for the unexpectedly close outcome. Less fortunate was Los Angeles Mayor Thomas Bradley, another prominent African-American, who ran for governor of California in 1982. He lost narrowly in a year that was considered almost as favorable for the Democrats as this one.

The second reason that the Democrats have needed to expand the electorate is the tendency of the party to under perform at the ballot box in relation to the hefty advantage they have long enjoyed in voter registration. On the eve of the 2004 election, there were better than 9 million more registered Democrats than Republicans in the 29 states (plus the District of Columbia) that register voters by party. Yet in the party-registration states, the Democratic presidential vote in 2004 was only 1 million votes higher than the Republican presidential vote. (A list of party-registration states appears in a note below.)

Part of that disparity is due to the fact that many registered Democrats are Democrats in name only, particularly in the South. More often than not, they vote Republican but remain registered as Democrats for reasons of family history.

In 2004, Bush won seven states where Republicans were out-registered by Democrats. The group included all five party-registration states in the South--Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina and Oklahoma, plus New Mexico and West Virginia. Meanwhile, the Democrats carried only one state (New Hampshire) in 2004 where there were more registered Republicans than Democrats.

Since then, the Democratic registration advantage in the party-registration states has swelled nationally to more than 11 million. Younger voters and African-Americans, in particular, have been the targets of Democratic registration drives. And their addition to the voting rolls could be enough to tip some of the states that Bush won narrowly last time from Republican to Democratic.

Playing Offense

On the top of the list is Iowa (with 7 electoral votes). In 2004, Republicans had a registration advantage of barely 4,000 over the Democrats and Bush carried the Hawkeye State by just 10,000 votes. Since then, Democrats have zoomed ahead in party registration and currently enjoy an edge of close to 100,000 registered voters. Add in John McCain's decision to essentially skip the Iowa caucuses in 2000 and 2008 and it is hard to see Obama not carrying the state this time.

The Democratic registration surge could also make a difference in Nevada (5 electoral votes). As in Iowa, the presidential results in Nevada four years ago closely tracked the registration numbers. Republicans had a registration plurality of 4,431 on the eve of the 2004 election and Bush carried the state by 21,500 votes. But that GOP registration advantage is long gone; the Democrats now lead in voter registration in Nevada by 60,000.

Recent Democratic registration gains point to two other major Obama opportunities in the Mountain West. In New Mexico (5 electoral votes), where Bush won by less than 6,000 votes in 2004, the Democratic registration lead since then has expanded by more than 11,000 voters.

In Colorado (9 electoral votes), which Bush carried by 100,000 votes last time, the GOP has a registration advantage over the Democrats. But it has been trimmed by more than 100,000 since 2004--from an edge of slightly more than 175,000 registered voters to less than 75,000 now. (As in Iowa, a plurality of registered voters in Colorado is not registered with either major party.)

In the South, the registration situation is a bit trickier. The Democratic registration advantage across the region is one of the few remaining legacies of the once solid Democratic South. Republicans have swept every Southern state in the last two presidential elections.

In 2004, Democrats lost two of their current target states, Florida (27 electoral votes) and North Carolina (15 electoral votes), by margins in the vicinity of 400,000 votes. Since then, Democrats have out-registered the Republicans by a net of 130,000 voters in Florida and 85,000 in North Carolina. But given the size of the deficits in the 2004 election, Obama cannot just rely on new Democrats to carry either state. He would also need to turn around tens of thousands of 'long-time' voters who cast a Republican presidential ballot last time, or motivate to vote previously registered Democrats, especially African-Americans, who did not participate.

Playing Defense

To win in 2008, Obama needs not only to make inroads on the Republican side of the map but to hold onto virtually everything that the Democrats won in 2004. In terms of voter registration, his campaign is in good position to do so.

In New Hampshire, which Democratic nominee John Kerry won by less than 10,000 votes last time, Democrats have cut the GOP registration advantage from nearly 40,000 voters down to less than 6,000. (New Hampshire is another state where a plurality of voters registers as unaffiliated.)

In Oregon, which Kerry carried by barely 75,000 votes, the Democratic registration advantage has exploded--from less than 70,000 voters in 2004 to more than 215,000 now.

And in Pennsylvania, where Kerry's margin of victory was less than 150,000 votes, the Democratic registration edge has almost doubled since 2004--from 580,000 to more than 1.1 million voters currently.

In an election year filled with unpredictability, expanding the electorate with new Democrats has been a necessary obsession of the Obama campaign. If the universe of voters had stayed the same as it was in 2004, he probably loses. But by growing it with hundreds of thousands of new Democrats, Obama has given himself a decent chance of winning.

Note: The 29 states (plus the District of Columbia) where voters register by party are as follows: Northeast (11 states plus DC)--Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, West Virginia. South (5)--Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma. Midwest (4)--Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota. West (9)--Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming.


During President George W. Bush's first term, the Republicans held their own in the registration wars in states that register voters by party. But since Bush's reelection in November 2004, the Democrats have gained ground registrationwise in virtually all of the states that are currently battlegrounds in 2008. In recent years, 29 states plus the District of Columbia have been registering voters by party. Other battleground states such as Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin have not.

Pres. Winners

Dem. or Rep. Plurality in Registration 2000-08


Electoral Votes



Total Registered Voters ('08)

Fall '00

Fall '04

Late Summer '08






160,551 R

177,508 R

73,634 R






372,843 D

368,757 D

498,124 D






24,648 R

4,402 R

94,255 D






838 R

4,431 R

61,705 D

New Hampshire





77,549 R

38,746 R

5,932 R

New Jersey





303,191 D

278,423 D

652,210 D

New Mexico





190,132 D

190,956 D

202,186 D

North Carolina





822,661 D

677,641 D

762,643 D






70,016 D

67,480 D

216,221 D






485,540 D

580,208 D

1,136,387 D

Note: The party registration figures for 2008 are the most recent available, with each state determining when its registration figures are tallied on a statewide basis. The totals used here are based on active registered voters whenever possible or a combination of active and inactive voters when that total is accented by the state election board.

Source: The web sites of the state election boards.

See Other Commentary by Rhodes Cook

See Other Political Commentary

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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