Ky. voter registration trends may surprise you

(THE COURIER-JOURNAL) -- Kentucky is a solidly red state. Seven out of eight members of the state's delegation to Washington are Republican. So is its governor, most of its other constitutional officers and its state Senate.

The state House of Representatives, with a big Donald Trump victory expected in the presidential contest here, could fall next month.

Just about the only place that Kentucky isn't Republican is in voter registration – but that is changing.

Three decades ago, Democrats had a 3-1 advantage in voter registration but now that has withered. And if the current trend keeps up, Kentucky could be a plurality GOP state within the decade.

But not so fast, says Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat, who recently completed a seven-month voter registration drive that saw new Republicans outnumber new Democrats by 1.5 percentage points.

While she acknowledged that Republicans have been catching up, she said one trend indicates that Democrats may be turning that around.

About a third of the voters who have registered since Grimes began her registration drive have done so online, and the majority of those have tended to be between the ages of 18 and 25. They also have tended to be Democrats.

Since online registration began, more than 42 percent of those registering by computer said they were Democrats while 39 percent said they were Republicans. The biggest growth, though, came from independents, who made up 19 percent.

"Republicans still have a significant amount of work to do," Grimes said. "What we have seen here in this state, when it comes to online, the younger folks are registering as Democrats."

That's not odd.

Nationally, the voters under the age of 51 tend to lean Democratic while older voters identify themselves as Republicans, according to the Pew Research Center. And for those between ages of 18 and 33, 57 percent say they are more Democratic while just 36 percent say they favor the Republican Party more.

Tres Watson, spokesman for the Republican Party of Kentucky, said there is no reason to believe that the trend toward the GOP will stop anytime soon.

He acknowledged that some young voters may be more Democratic now but said that one of the GOP's growth areas is Democrats switching parties.

"It used to be that you registered as a Democrat because your parents were Democrats and your grandparents were Democrats and your great-grandparents were Democrats," he said. "Voters today don't have that same level of generational loyalty."

Furthermore, he said that as Republicans gain strength in different parts of the state, people will be more willing to register as Republicans.

"The old line that if you want to vote in a primary you have to register Democrat, that was true for a lot of decades," he said. "But as more and more are registering Republican and people are more comfortable electing Republicans, that's no longer the case."

Kentucky's move toward the GOP began more than 30 years ago and even before U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell upset Democrat Walter "Dee" Huddleston in the 1984 wave election that saw President Ronald Reagan sweep to an easy re-election over former Vice President Walter Mondale.

Since then, the percentage of Republicans has nudged upward in all but a handful of years, while the percentage of Democrats have slumped. The percentage of independents has more than doubled over time but still represents less than 10 percent of the electorate.

Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky who tracks voter attitudes, said that unlike many states that have switched allegiances in registration, Kentucky never saw a seismic shift.

"Most of this change has almost certainly been generational," he said. "As those older Democrats who were kind of conservative, but they were Democrats, rolled off, out of the electorate and as younger ones rolled in, they were resetting ... the politics to fit more with what party fit them now rather than what party would have fit them a generation ago."

This year has one of the largest spikes in Republican registrations with Republicans increasing their percentage of voters by 1.1 points.

Grimes said she suspects some of those registering as Republicans did so to vote for U.S. Sen. Rand Paul in the March Republican presidential caucus. Paul dropped out of the race in early February but remained on the caucus ballot.

Jan Leighley, a political science professor at American University in Washington, said some of that increase may be attributable to Donald Trump, but she said it's unclear what that means. Trump has claimed that he is bringing a million more new Republican voters into the system but studies by the Washington Post in March and Politico in May suggested otherwise.

"I would guess that, yes, indeed, the spike may have something to do with Trump. But what we learn from the spike in registration is less certain," Leighley said. "Are these individuals who were mobilized by his non-traditional campaign/issues/personality? Might some of them be Republicans who registered to vote against him?"

But Leighley said the spike could simply be an increase because of added attention on the presidential race.

Voss believes that is more likely.

"It's common to see spikes in registration during presidential years," he said.

Voss said that it's unclear if the trend will continue and ultimately move Kentucky from blue to red in voter registration.

As Republican registration nears Democratic numbers, there will be a smaller pool of potential "flippers" for the GOP to lure over. Additionally, as Grimes points out, younger voters tend to be more liberal and more likely to register as Democrats.

"We have seen, even in Kentucky, some increase in liberalism among younger voters," he said.

But Voss said the ongoing shift toward "cultural politics" rather than economic politics may help move Kentucky into the Republican column.  "We know that what’s defining politics now is morality and race and ethnicity and culture more than it is economics," he said.


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