Recently, it was reported that those registered as Democrats in Louisiana dipped below 50% for the first time since the state started maintaining party registration statistics over five decades ago. This means that of those registered to vote as of August 1, 49.6% are Democrats, 27% are Republicans, and 23% are Independents. If you analyze the data at a more detailed level, you’ll see that the Democratic Party is in structural trouble, while Independents, from a numerical standpoint, are rapidly approaching “second party” status in Louisiana.
Going back in time
This decline in Democratic strength has been a decline both in absolute numbers and in percent influence. To put in perspective, when George W. Bush was inaugurated a decade ago, Democrats had a 60-22% advantage in voter registration (the remaining 18% were Independent); today, that lead is down to 50-27%. This decline occurred despite the fact that there are actually 3,000 fewer white voters than there were a decade ago, while black voter registration has, in absolute numbers, increased 8.5%, or 67,000.
In other words, when you take into account the decrease in the number of white registered voters, the decline in Democratic voter registration is even more substantial when you narrow the focus to the formerly dominant white Democrats. A decade ago, white voters registered Democratic by a 50-31% margin; today, a 38-37% plurality of white voters are Republicans – a decrease of 268,000 (or 28%) in the number of white Democrats over the past decade.
In political terms, the evaporation of white Democrats means that white Democrats are now a minority even within their own party: of Democratic Party registrants: blacks have a 49-48.5% plurality today. In a party primary situation (currently, only the Presidential primary is closed to party members), this means that black Democrats are steadily approaching majority status and can determine the primary winner as long as they bloc vote.
Even though blacks remain solidly Democratic, their affection for the Democratic Party has slightly weakened as well if you look at voter registration: a decade ago, Democrats had a solid 83-3% majority (the remaining 14% were Independent) among black voters; today, Democrats have 80% of black registered voters (17% are Independent, and 3% are Republican). Curiously, black Republican registration has actually declined in absolute numbers relative to 2001: the decline in Democratic registration has only increased the number of registered Independents.
Is this decline in Democratic dominance in terms of voter registration a temporary or more permanent thing? Typically, the way a person registers to vote does not change until a voter moves to another neighborhood and/or parish. So if you were to look at party registration through the prism of when the person registered to vote, you start to see some interesting trends. For those who registered to vote before Reagan was inaugurated in 1981, 75% registered Democratic, while 21% registered Republican. The Democratic dominance with this voter bloc makes sense when you realize that this group, by and large, registered to vote before former Governor Edwards instituted the “open primary” system. Which meant that in those days, you registered Democratic because that (the Democratic primary) was where all the action was: John Maginnis once noted that “the Louisiana Democratic party was like the air – you weren’t really aware of it, but you sure weren’t going to try breathing anything else.”
During the 12 years that Reagan and George H.W. Bush were president, you had a surge in Republican Party registration that, in percentage terms, actually reached its pinnacle during the first two years of the Clinton administration: by then, the Democratic voter registration advantage with those registering in 1993 or 1994 eroded to 52-30%. It was also during this time that there was a surge in those not affiliating with either major party.
During the Clinton and George W. Bush years, those registering Republican not only remained constant, but hovered just below 30%, while Democratic voter registration during those 16 years plummeted, and those not declaring a party numerically began to outnumber Republican registration starting in 1997, and since then, the gap between Independents and Republicans has only widened.
The advent of Barack Obama on the political scene both benefitted and hurt Democratic voter registration in Louisiana. Initially, his candidacy sparked an outpouring of enthusiasm among black voters, and during 2007-2008, Democratic voter registration jumped from 36% in 2005-2006 to 43%. Republican registration during these two years actually dipped to 25%, and even the percentage of those registering Independent dropped. This enthusiasm continued all the way to Election Day 2008, as white turnout actually decreased 34,000 between the 2004 and 2008 elections, while black turnout increased 52,000, or 10%. As we determined in an earlier article, this Democratic “surge” essentially re-elected Senator Mary Landrieu that year.
Since Barack Obama’s inauguration, however, Democratic voter identification has plunged to record lows: only 31% of all registrants (and 18% of white registrants) have registered Democratic. Republican registration surged from 25 to 29%, although (curiously) this percentage has been about the same as it was for those registering to vote between 1987 and 2007.
What all of this means going forward is that, given voter registration trends thus far, Republican voter registration statewide will approach 30% in the near future. The number of registered Independents will likely overtake the number of Republicans within the next decade and peak at about 35%, while Democratic voter registration will probably stabilize at about 35%. In other words, you will have a situation where the bloc of those registering as Independents will truly be the “swing vote”, while as time goes on, those registering as Democrats will be those who support the Democratic ideology – essentially, the “conservative Democrat” will disappear.