A political shift is beginning to take hold across the U.S. as tens of thousands of suburban swing voters who helped fuel the Democratic Party’s gains in recent years become Republicans.
More than 1 million voters across 43 states have switched to the Republican Party over the past year, according to voter registration data analyzed by The Associated Press. The previously unreported number reflects a phenomenon that is playing out in virtually every region of the country — Democratic and Republican states along with cities and small towns — in the period since President Biden replaced President Trump.
Nowhere is the shift more pronounced — and dangerous for Democrats — than in the suburbs, where well-educated swing voters who turned against Mr. Trump’s Republican Party in recent years appear to be swinging back. Over the past year, far more people are switching to the Republican Party across suburbs of cities including Denver, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Republicans also gained ground in counties around medium-size cities such as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Raleigh, North Carolina; Augusta, Georgia; and Des Moines, Iowa.
Ben Smith, who lives in suburban Larimer County, Colorado, north of Denver, said he reluctantly registered as a Republican this year after becoming increasingly concerned about the Democrats’ support in some localities for mandatory COVID-19 vaccines, the party’s inability to quell violent crime and its frequent focus on racial justice.
“It’s more so a rejection of the left than embracing the right,” said Mr. Smith, a 37-year-old professional counselor whose transition away from the Democratic Party began five or six years ago when he registered as a libertarian.
The AP examined nearly 1.7 million voters who had likely switched affiliations across 42 states for which there is data over the past 12 months, according to L2, a political data firm. L2 uses a combination of state voter records and statistical modeling to determine party affiliation, meaning the switchers include those who have formally changed their registration and those who L2 estimates have shifted toward the Republican Party.
Although party switching is not uncommon, the data shows a definite reversal from the period while Mr. Trump was in office, when Democrats held a slight edge in the number of party switchers nationwide.
Over the past year, roughly two-thirds of the 1.7 million voters who changed their party affiliation shifted to the Republican Party. In all, more than 1 million people became Republicans, compared with about 630,000 who became Democrats.
The broad migration of more than 1 million voters, a small portion of the overall U.S. electorate, does not ensure widespread Republican success in the November midterm elections, which will determine control of Congress and dozens of governorships. Democrats are hoping the Supreme Court’s announcement Friday of overruling the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide will energize supporters, particularly in the suburbs.
Still, the details about party switchers present a dire warning for Democrats, who were already concerned about the macro effects shaping the political landscape this fall.
Roughly four months before Election Day, Democrats have no clear strategy to address Mr. Biden’s weak popularity and voters’ overwhelming fear that the country is headed in the wrong direction with their party in charge. Although Republicans have offered few policy solutions of their own, the party has been working effectively to capitalize on the Democrats’ shortcomings.
Republicans benefited last year as suburban parents grew increasingly frustrated by prolonged pandemic-related school closures. As inflation intensified more recently, the Republican National Committee has been hosting voter registration events at gas stations in suburban areas across swing states such as Arizona, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania to link the Biden administration to record-high gas prices. Republicans also are using the ongoing baby formula shortage in attacks against the Democratic president.
“Biden and Democrats are woefully out of touch with the American people, and that’s why voters are flocking to the Republican Party in droves,” RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel told the AP. She predicted that “American suburbs will trend red for cycles to come” because of “Biden’s gas hike, the open border crisis, baby formula shortage and rising crime.”
The Democratic National Committee declined to comment when asked about the surge in voters switching to the Republican Party.
Although Republican officials are quick to take credit for the shift, the phenomenon gained momentum shortly after Mr. Trump left the White House. Still, the specific reason or reasons for the shift are not clear.
At least some of the newly registered Republicans are Democrats who crossed over to vote against Trump-backed candidates in Republican primaries. Such voters are likely to vote Democratic in November.
Still, the scope and breadth of the party switching suggest something much bigger at play.
Over the past year, nearly every state — even those without high-profile Republican primaries — moved in the same direction as voters by the thousands became Republicans. Only Virginia, which held off-year elections in 2021, showed Democrats notably trending up over the past year. Even there, Democrats were wiped out in last fall’s statewide elections.
In Iowa, Democrats used to hold the advantage in party changers by a 2-1 margin. That has flipped over the past year, with Republicans ahead by a similar margin. The same dramatic shift is playing out in Ohio.
In Florida, Republicans captured 58% of party switchers during those last years of the Trump era. Now, over the past year, they command 70%. In Pennsylvania, Republicans went from 58% to 63% of party changers.
The advantage for Republicans among party changers is playing out with particular ferocity in the nation’s suburbs.
The AP found that the Republican advantage was larger in suburban “fringe” counties, based on classifications from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared with smaller towns and counties. Republicans boosted their share of party changers in 168 of 235 suburban counties that AP examined — 72% — over the past year, compared with the last years of the Trump era.
These included suburban counties across Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Ohio, Virginia and Washington state.
Republicans also gained ground in farther-out suburban counties, which the CDC lumps in with medium-size cities and calls “medium metro.” More than 62% of such counties, 164 in all, showed Republican growth. They include the suburban counties north of Denver, such as Larimer, and Los Angeles, such as Ventura and Santa Barbara in California.
The Republican advantage was nearly universal, but it was stronger in some places than others.
In Lorain County, Ohio, just outside Cleveland, nearly every party switcher over the past year has gone Republican. Democrats captured three-quarters of those changing parties in the same county during the end of the Trump era.
Some conservative leaders worry that the Republicans’ suburban gains will be limited if the party doesn’t do a better job explaining to suburban voters what they stand for, instead of what they stand against.
Emily Seidel, who leads the Koch-backed grassroots organization Americans for Prosperity, said her network is seeing firsthand that suburban voters are distancing themselves from Democrats who represent “extreme policy positions.”
“But that doesn’t mean that they’re ready to vote against those lawmakers either. Frankly, they’re skeptical of both options that they have,” Ms. Seidel said. “The lesson here: Candidates have to make their case, they have to give voters something to be for, not just something to be against.”
In Larimer County, Colorado, 39-year-old homemaker Jessica Kroells said she can no longer vote for Democrats despite being a reliable Democratic voter until 2016.
There was not a single “aha moment” that persuaded her to switch, she said, but by 2020, the Democratic Party had “left me behind.”
“The party itself is no longer Democrat; it’s progressive socialism,” she said, specifically condemning Mr. Biden’s plan to eliminate billions of dollars in student debt.
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