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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

G.O.P. Drops in Voting Rolls in Many States


Well before Senators Barack Obama and John McCain rose to the top of their parties, a partisan shift was under way at the local and state level. For more than three years starting in 2005, there has been a reduction in the number of voters who register with the Republican Party and a rise among voters who affiliate with Democrats and, almost as often, with no party at all.

While the implications of the changing landscape for Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain are far from clear, voting experts say the registration numbers may signal the beginning of a move away from Republicans that could affect local, state and national politics over several election cycles. Already, there has been a sharp reversal for Republicans in many statehouses and governors’ mansions.

In several states, including the traditional battlegrounds of Nevada and Iowa, Democrats have surprised their own party officials with significant gains in registration. In both of those states, there are now more registered Democrats than Republicans, a flip from 2004. No states have switched to the Republicans over the same period, according to data from 26 of the 29 states in which voters register by party. (Three of the states did not have complete data.)

In six states, including Iowa, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, the Democratic piece of the registration pie grew more than three percentage points, while the Republican share declined. In only three states — Kentucky, Louisiana and Oklahoma — did Republican registration rise while Democratic registration fell, but the Republican increase was less than a percentage point in Kentucky and Oklahoma. Louisiana was the only state to register a gain of more than one percentage point for Republicans as Democratic numbers declined.

Over the same period, the share of the electorate that registers as independent has grown at a faster rate than Republicans or Democrats in 12 states. The rise has been so significant that in states like Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina, nonpartisan voters essentially constitute a third party.

Swings in party registration are not uncommon from one year to the next, or even over two years. Registration, moreover, often has no impact on how people actually vote, and people sometimes switch registration to vote in a primary, then flip again come Election Day.

But for a shift away from one party to sustain itself — the current registration trend is now in its fourth year — is remarkable, researchers who study voting patterns say. And though comparable data are not available for the 21 states where voters do not register by party, there is evidence that an increasing number of voters in those states are also moving away from the Republican Party based on the results of recent state and Congressional elections, the researchers said.

“This is very suggestive that there is a fundamental change going on in the electorate,” said Michael P. McDonald, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an associate professor of political science at George Mason University who has studied voting patterns.

Mr. McDonald added that, more typically, voting and registration patterns tended to even out or revert to the opposing party between elections.

Dick Armey, the former House majority leader and one of the designers of the so-called Republican Revolution of 1994, said: “Obviously, these are not good numbers for the party to be looking at. Democrats have always had extremely broad multifaceted registration programs.”

But in terms of the presidential election, Mr. Armey said the tea leaves were harder to read.

“I think the key in this one is, where do all these new independent voters break?” he said. “I think right now, you’ve got a guy in western Pennsylvania saying, ‘I am really disgusted right now and I’m not going to register as a Republican anymore, but I really don’t want this guy Obama elected.’ ”

Those in charge of state Democratic parties cite a national displeasure with the Bush administration as an impetus for the changing numbers, which run counter to a goal of Karl Rove, President Bush’s former top adviser, to create a permanent realignment in favor of Republicans.

“I think nationally and here, people are kind of tired of the way this administration has been conducting the policies of this country,” said Pat Waak, chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party.

Yet while an unpopular war, a faltering economy and a president held in low esteem have combined to hurt the Republican Party, Democrats are also benefiting from demographic changes, including the rise in the number of younger voters and the urbanization of suburbs, which has resulted in a different political flavor there, voting and campaign experts said. The party has also been helped by a willingness to run more pragmatic candidates, who have helped make the party more appealing to a broader swath of the electorate.

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