WASHINGTON – Political change is beginning to take place in the US as tens of thousands of swing suburban voters who have contributed to the gains of the Democratic Party in recent years are turning Republican.
According to voter registration data analyzed by The Associated Press, more than 1 million voters in 43 states switched to the Republican Party last year. The previously unreported number reflects a phenomenon that has been unfolding in virtually every region of the country — Democratic and Republican states, as well as cities and towns — in the time since President Joe Biden succeeded former President Donald Trump.
But nowhere is the shift more pronounced — and more dangerous for Democrats — than in the suburbs, where well-educated swing voters who have turned against Trump’s Republican Party in recent years seem to be fighting back. In the last year, far more people in suburban counties from Denver to Atlanta and Pittsburgh to Cleveland switched to the GOP. Republicans were also gaining ground in counties around medium-sized cities like Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Raleigh, NC; Augusta, Georgia; and Des Moines, Iowa.
Ben Smith, who lives in the Larimer County, Colorado suburb north of Denver, said he reluctantly registered as a Republican earlier this year after growing concerns about Democrats’ support for mandatory COVID-19 vaccines in some locations the party’s inability to suppress violent crime and its frequent focus on racial justice.
“It’s more of a rejection of the left than an embrace of the right,” said Smith, a 37-year-old professional adviser whose departure from the Democratic Party began five or six years ago when he registered as a libertarian.
According to L2, a political data firm, the AP surveyed nearly 1.7 million voters who likely had switched affiliations across 42 states for which data is available over the past 12 months. L2 uses a combination of state voter records and statistical modeling to determine party affiliation. While party switches are not uncommon, the data show a clear reversal from when Trump was in office, when Democrats nationwide had a slight lead in the number of party switches.
But last year, about two-thirds of the 1.7 million voters who changed their party affiliation switched to the Republican Party. Overall, more than 1 million people became Republicans compared to about 630,000 who became Democrats.
The broad migration of more than 1 million voters, a small fraction of the total US electorate, does not guarantee widespread Republican success in the November midterm elections that will determine control of Congress and dozens of governorships. Democrats hope Friday’s Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Overriding Wade, which will energize supporters, particularly in the suburbs, ahead of the midterms.
Still, the details of party changes represent a dire warning for Democrats already concerned about the macro effects shaping the political landscape this fall.
With nearly four months to go before Election Day, Democrats lack a clear strategy to counter Biden’s weak popularity and voters’ overwhelming fear that the country is taking their party in the wrong direction. And while Republicans have offered few policy solutions of their own, the GOP has worked effectively to capitalize on Democrats’ shortcomings.
Republicans benefited last year as suburban parents grew increasingly frustrated with the ongoing pandemic-related school closures. And as inflation intensified more recently, the Republican National Committee held voter registration events at suburban gas stations in swing states like Arizona, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania to associate the Biden administration with record-high gas prices. The GOP has also linked the Democratic president to an ongoing baby food shortage.
“Unfortunately, Biden and the Democrats have no contact with the American people, and as a result, voters are flocking to the Republican Party,” Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the RNC, told the AP. She predicted that “American suburbs will turn red in the coming cycles” because of “Biden’s gas hike, the open border crisis, the baby food shortage and rising crime.”
The Democratic National Committee declined to comment when asked about the recent surge in voters who switched to the GOP.
And while Republican officials were quick to acknowledge the change, the phenomenon gained momentum shortly after Trump left the White House. However, the exact reason or reasons for the postponement remain unclear.
At least some of the newly registered Republicans are actually Democrats who switched to the GOP primary to vote against Trump-backed candidates. Such voters are likely to vote again Democratic in November.
But the scale and breadth of the party switch suggests something much bigger is at play.
Over the past year, almost every state — even those without a high-profile Republican primary — has moved in the same direction as thousands of voters turned Republican. Only in Virginia, where elections were held in 2021, have Democrats seen a notable upward trend over the past year. But even there, the Democrats were wiped out in last fall’s statewide election.
In Iowa, Democrats used to have the advantage in switching parties with a 2-to-1 advantage. That has reversed over the past year, with Republicans leading by a similar amount. The same dramatic shift is playing out in Ohio.
In Florida, Republicans captured 58 percent of party changes in the final years of the Trump era. Now, over the last year, they have mastered 70 percent. And in Pennsylvania, Republicans rose from 58 to 63 percent of party changers.
The current Republican advantage among party changers is playing out most violently in the country’s suburbs.
The AP found that the Republican advantage was greater in suburban “outskirts,” based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifications, compared to smaller cities and counties. Republicans have increased their switching rate by 72 percent in 168 of 235 suburban counties surveyed by the AP over the past year, compared to the last few years of the Trump era.
These included suburban counties in Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Ohio, Virginia and Washington state.
Republicans were also gaining ground in more distant suburban counties, which the CDC lumps together with medium-sized cities and calls “medium metro” — more than 62 percent of those counties, 164 in total, saw Republican growth. They range from suburban counties north of Denver, like Larimer, to counties in the Los Angeles area, like Ventura and Santa Barbara in California.
The Republican advantage was nearly universal, but it was stronger in some places than others.
For example, in Lorain County, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland, nearly every changer in the past year has gone Republican. That’s true even when Democrats captured three-fourths of those rotating parties in the same county at the end of the Trump era.
Some conservative leaders fear that unless Republicans do a better job of explaining to suburban voters what they stand for — rather than what they oppose — the GOP’s gains in the suburbs will be limited.
Emily Seidel, who runs the Koch-backed grassroots organization Americans for Prosperity, said her network sees firsthand that suburban voters are distancing themselves from Democrats who hold “extreme political positions.”
“But that doesn’t mean they’re willing to vote against those lawmakers either. Honestly, they’re skeptical about both options they have,” Seidel said. “The lesson here: candidates need to make their case, they need to give voters something to be for, not just something they are against.”
Back in Larimer County, Colorado, housewife Jessica Kroells, 39, says she can no longer vote for Democrats, although she was a reliable Democratic voter until 2016.
There wasn’t a single “aha moment” that convinced her to make the switch, but by 2020 she said the Democratic Party had “left me behind.”
“The party itself is no longer democratic but progressive socialism,” she said, explicitly condemning Biden’s plan to eliminate billions of dollars in student debt.
Peoples reported from New York.
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