Monday, April 02, 2012

Numbers That Mean Less Than You Think

Iowa Republicans are spending the evening high-fiving one another over voter registration statistics. They've been doing this every month lately, as the Democratic lead that peaked after the 2008 caucuses dwindled.

The celebrating is heartier than usual because the lines have crossed and yes, there are now more registered Rs than Ds in the state. New Chair AJ Spiker trumpets:
“The failed policies of the Obama presidency and the Obama Democrats have opened the eyes of many voters to the benefits of the Republican Party ideals of lower taxes, less government intrusion, and the protection of individual liberty. More than 1 in 10 Democrats have fled the Iowa Democrat Party since Barack Obama was elected President, and today for the first time in years, there are more registered Republicans than Democrats."
So that's the explanation Spiker imagines: "Gee, I hate Obamacare so much that I'm making a special trip down to my county courthouse to change parties."

Well, that ain't how it works in the real world. People don't change affiliation to Make A Statement. Sure, it's been known to occur. But what usually happens is they change affiliation when they're required to in order to participate in a specific contest. Changing party is not like tattoo removal surgery; it's more like "I want a Republican ballot today."

The Register inadvertently notes this:
On Aug. 1, 2006, there were 606,168 active registered Democrats statewide and 590,165 Republicans. That was the first time Democrats had been ahead since 1994...
1994. Sure, that was a huge GOP year. But more important to party registration numbers was the epic Republican governor primary between Terry Branstad and Fred Grandy, which set turnout records Branstad himself said would never be broken. In Johnson County, GOP registration leaped four percentage points in one day, and it took about six years, until the 2000 presidential election, to gradually return to its pre-`94 levels.

That's because a lot of those people who intend to be a Party Member For A Day don't follow through until there's some other compelling reason to change. The Register continues:
The year 2006 was when the Democrats took control of the Iowa Senate and Iowa House, and Democrat Chet Culver cruised to victory in the governor’s race.
More significant than the general election zeitgeist of 2006: Democrats had a hot primary for governor between Chet Culver, Mike Blouin and Ed Fallon. Oh, and Sal Mohamed. But on the GOP side, Jim Nussle had engineered a leveraged buyout of primary opponent Bob Vander Plaats by making him the running mate. So the casual voters interested in influencing a contest became registered Democrats.

Iowa's Democratic registration numbers in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 caucuses were artificially, unsustainably high. And since that date the Republicans have had two big contests to get people to switch over, while Democrats have had none.

The sharpest shift in registration came in the high turnout, bitter aftermath 2010 Republican primary for governor. After four terms in office, Branstad was barely able to get half the vote, and Bob Vander Plaats never did endorse him. A much better drama than Roxanne Conlin vs. a couple also rans in a yawner Democratic senate primary.

The intra-party battle of June, not the GOP victory of November, meant more to expanding Republican rolls on paper. In a sense, bragging about your registration gains is bragging about how divided you are. The best thing for Democratic registration stats would have been a primary challenger to Chet Culver.

The 2012 Republican caucuses, with mass party-switching for Ron Paul and a dead heat result, also spiked GOP registrations compared to the Democrats, who had an "organizing opportunity" that attracted few but the faithful.

In between these big primary and caucus spikes, the normal statistical trend is toward dis-affiliation or non-affiliation, as new voters not required to choose a party to participate in a specific race get registered and as those as those Party Members for a day get around to it. Since Democrats were at an all-time high, they've had more of those casual registrants to lose.

The Register's Jennifer Jacobs makes the most valid point, tweeting: Each Iowa political group – Ds, Rs, independents - lost numbers between last month & this month, records show. Rs just loss fewer than Ds."

That's because a lot of counties mailed new voter cards to all registered voters, listing their new post-redistricting precincts and legislative districts. Some of those cards get returned to auditors as undeliverable -- which means the voter gets put on an "inactive" status, which is a first step in the cancellation process. Democrats tend to be younger, tend to be more mobile, so they get more inactivations. Independents, even more so. Demographically, Republicans tend to be more situated -- and of course a lot of them had just freshened up their registration addresses on caucus night.

None of this is to deny Republicans their moment of celebration or to say registration statistics are completely meaningless. But they don't mean as much over a short period of time as Iowa Republicans are pretending they do. You need to look back over longer time frames, like decades, so the statistical spikes of a specific primary or caucus even out. Iowa hasn't all of a sudden "turned Red" as Spiker headlines his release. We're as purple as we were last month and as purple as we were in 2000 and 2004.

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