Decision 2012 – “swing state” voter registration (Part 2 of 2)

In a previous installment of this analysis, we analyzed voter registration changes in Florida, Colorado, and Iowa from 2008-2012. In this article, we will examine Nevada, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.







North Carolina

One of the biggest surprises of Election Night 2008 was the fact that President Obama carried North Carolina – the first Democrat to do so since Jimmy Carter in 1976 – even former President Clinton maxed out at 44% support here. This was due to a very strong black vote and a critical mass of northern migrants in the metropolitan areas of Raleigh and Charlotte who broke heavily towards the Democrats in 2008. There was arguably an additional factor: the banking industry has a major presence in Charlotte, and the financial crisis that erupted in 2008 arguably benefitted the Democrats in that part of the state.

From a Presidential preference standpoint, there were few warning signs that North Carolina would vote Democratic in 2008: the last time a Democratic Presidential candidate received over 45% of the statewide vote was Jimmy Carter in 1980 (and even then, he still lost the state). However, North Carolina has also seen robust population growth, and many of the migrants have come from the North and are more inclined to vote Democratic. And in 2008, the Democrats saw a 275K (or 47%) increase in the voter registration plurality they already had. To put it another way, for every new registered Republican in 2008, there were 4 new registered Democrats. Since President Obama ended up carrying the state by only 14K votes, voter registration drives clearly made the difference.

Ever since that “high water mark”, Democrats have lost 109K of their voter registration plurality, and in 2012 alone, new Republican registrations have exceeded new Democratic registrations 5:1. However, there has been an even stronger trend towards registering Independent; since President Obama’s inauguration, Independents have seen an 176K increase in their numbers.

The 30 day average of recent polls in North Carolina shows Mitt Romney leading President Obama 48-46%. Republicans had a good year here in 2010: for the first time since Reconstruction, they captured both houses of the legislature. This enabled them to draw more favorable Congressional districts for themselves in time for the 2012 elections. Why would this matter? For decades, Democrats have controlled redistricting, and this control enabled them minimize their House losses to one seat in 2010, even though three more Democratic incumbents were closely pressed that year.

Between the GOP “surge” in 2010 and favorable voter registration, this should be one of the easier states for Romney to recapture for the Republicans in November.


Pennsylvania has been one of those “swing states” that Republicans just can’t seem to carry: George H W Bush last did so in 1988, and even then, his margin of 100K (out of 4.5 million votes cast) was too close for comfort.

What complicates campaigning here are wildly divergent attitudes among its voter blocs. The black and white ethnic populations living within the Philadelphia orbit tend to have union sympathies, and have been joined since 1992 by higher income whites who have scant tolerance for conservative attitudes on social issues. In other words, these high income and mostly suburban voters share voter attitudes that have become increasingly prevalent between the Washington DC suburbs in northern Virginia and the Boston, Massachusetts media market.

Outside of Philadelphia is a mixture of heavily industrialized (especially in and around Pittsburgh) and rural areas. While you have pockets of ethnic and unionized voters here as well, you also don’t have the liberal cultural attitudes prevalent in metro Philadelphia; in fact, this part of the state has become more Republican friendly after swinging towards Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis in the 1980s.

Democrats had a banner year in 2008: their voter registration numbers increased by 597K (or 15%), while there were 48K more registered Independents and a slight DECREASE in the absolute number of registered Republicans. Despite the McCain campaign’s hope that this would be a closely fought state, Obama carried the state with an unambiguous 55% of the vote – a level of strength the Democrats have not seen since 1964. The voter registration “surge” clearly helped: Obama carried the state by 620K, which was about the number of new Democratic registrants in 2008.

Democrats have had little to celebrate about since then: they have lost 5% of their voters since 2009, while Republicans have lost 3%, and Independent registrations have increased 3%. However, the statistics look even better for the Republicans in the past year: they have gained 51K new registrants, while Democrats have lost 6K voters and Independents have picked up 45K.

Should the Republicans invest time here?  Even though the 30 day average of recent polls in Pennsylvania shows Barack Obama with a 47-41% lead over Mitt Romney, Republicans had a good year here in 2010 in terms of statewide, Congressional, and legislative contests held here. And it could be argued that the voter registration surge which boosted Obama’s fortunes here in 2008 has largely dissipated since then.


It used to be that there was an “Electoral College lock” for Republicans which included states like California, Illinois, Colorado, Virginia – and Nevada. That changed when in the past two decades, a booming economy before 2008 brought numerous migrants into the state to work in the state’s construction and service industries. These migrants tended to be union friendly and/or Hispanic, and made Nevada elections competitive between 1992 and 2004 – in those election years, no Presidential candidate won with more than 50% of the vote, and margins of victory never exceeded 22K.

The home foreclosure crisis, however, was a major game changer here: unemployment jumped to double digit levels and stayed there. Even today, the state still suffers from 12% unemployment.

This economic sea change (formerly, Nevada saw huge population gains every Census) swung the state sharply towards the Democrats in 2008: a Democratic voter registration plurality of 26K in January 2008 quadrupled to 108K by the time President Obama was inaugurated. And President Obama won the state by 121K votes in that year’s Presidential election. To put it another way, former President Bush was re-elected by 21K votes in 2004 when Republicans had a 4K voter registration plurality. By the time President Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, Democrats had a 108K voter registration edge. That 112K voter registration swing towards the Democrats was 93% of Obama’s 2008 margin of victory.

This is the one swing state that has not shown much affection for Republicans since 2009, despite the continued high unemployment: the Democratic voter registration edge has only dropped from 108 to 100K since Obama’s inauguration, and unlike other states, voter registration for the first half of 2012 actually showed Democrats out registering Republicans 12 to 7K.

Furthermore, the 2010 elections showed only a slight movement towards the Republicans. While they kept the governorship and narrowly picked up a U.S. House seat, Democratic Senator Harry Reid surprised many by winning re-election that year. And both houses of Nevada’s legislature remained in Democratic control.

The 30 day average of recent polls in Nevada shows President Obama with a 49-45% advantage over Mitt Romney. While Republicans’ performance in 2010 and voter registration trends since 2009 have not favored Republicans much, Nevada also has a substantial Mormon population (curiously, both Harry Reid and Mitt Romney are Mormons), and while Democrats have maintained their voter registration lead, they still only have 42% of registered voters. Republicans have another 35%, while a crucial 23% are unaffiliated with either major party. This is where the election will be decided, although Independents here didn’t seem to swing against Democrats as sharply as they did in other states.


Of the factors that contributed to President Obama’s victorious 2008 campaign, it was a surge in Democratic voter registration that year that clearly made the difference in several states. By and large, that surge has dissipated since then, and the Republicans have shown some affirmative strength if you consider 2012 voter registration trends. This is the context under which President Obama will have to fight for his re-election.