This article is part of the The DC Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox every weekday.
Voters yesterday lined up before dawn to cast some of the first votes in Miami. The lines at polling stations in Philadelphia have been out the door since September. And last week, the numbers on the first day of early voting in Raleigh were crushing those from four years ago.
While analyses of early voting numbers suggest Democrats are far and away banking more safe ballots in these key swing states, another reality cannot be ignored: all three were red on Election Night in 2016, despite Democrats’ apparent advantages that year in polling, rolls and organizing. Now Republicans have narrowed those advantages by ramping up voter-registration efforts in these and other states over the last four years. They still haven’t erased Democrats’ upperhand, but they’ve been chipping away at it, giving the party a reason to think Trump could eek out another slim win in the critical states of Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
How many voters are registered with each party in a state is hardly predictive of a race’s outcome, but it can show you how close of a mark you’re starting with. While Democrats appear to be dominating Republicans in early-vote numbers nationally by 13 percentage points, they had roughly the same lead four years ago — and it proved insufficient. Republicans say they’ve made improvements on the margins to make it even tougher for Democrats now.
Because elections are a series of processes administered by individual states, there is no uniform way to accurately compare who is eligible to vote or who is showing up across all 50 states and the District of Columbia at this moment, or against this time four years ago. For instance, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin don’t report party registrations as part of their data. But there are signs that Trump’s inroads may have made it easier for him to replicate his win from four years ago.
Take, for instance, Florida. The voter registration numbers show a narrowing gap, to a 1.3-percentage-point voter-registration advantage for Democrats. Four years ago, Democrats were ahead in voter registration by party by twice that and still lost Florida by 1.2 percentage points. In 2012, Democrats had a 5.6-percentage-point registration advantage when the networks painted it blue for Barack Obama by just 0.9 points in the vote. Now, Biden is heading into Florida ahead in the polls, but with only a 1-percentage-point registration advantage for Democrats as the election starts.
There are reasons to believe Democrats didn’t totally fall asleep at the wheel in the Sunshine State. In vote-by-mail requests this year, Republicans have requested 1 million ballots to Democrats’ 1.3 million, according to the Secretary of State — a space that typically is a Republican stronghold. Four years ago, Democrats trailed in the final vote-by-mail tally by about 60,000 votes, according to state reports. By the same token, Democrats four years ago led in in-person early voting by about 155,000 votes, according to the same reports. First-day numbers suggest the trend may continue: registered Democrats cast 40% more votes than Republicans on Day One of early voting, according to the non-partisan U.S. Elections Project.
There’s been a shift toward new Republicans on voter rolls elsewhere in the country, too. In Pennsylvania, Republicans have been making inroads in adding new voters at a faster clip than Democrats. As a result, Democrats’ advantage shrunk from 10.4 percentage points in 2016 — when Clinton lost by 0.7 percentage points — to 7.8 percentage points today. Still, that advantage is half of what Obama ran with in 2008, when Democrats had a 14.2-percentage-point leg up over Republicans and squeaked by with a 10.4-percentage-point win. Since 2008, Republicans have had a net addition of 100,000 votes to their rolls more than Democrats.
And in North Carolina, Republicans remain bullish on keeping the state in the red column come Nov. 3. Trump carried the state by 3.6 percentage points in 2016, despite Democrats’ 9.3-percentage-point advantage. Since then, Republicans have successfully added more than 113,000 new GOP voters to the rolls.
That doesn’t change the share of how many people identify as Republican, though. Some 30.2% of North Carolina voters identify with the GOP, even after a 3.8-percentage-point swing away from Democrats from this time four years ago. Democrats still have a 5.5-percentage-point leg up, according to state elections data. But it’s a far cry of the 13.4-percentage-point advantage Democrats enjoyed back in 2008, when Obama became the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976 to turn the state blue.
There are equally as compelling arguments in voter-registration data that this race is slipping from Trump’s grip. In New Hampshire, for the first time in 10 years, Democrats outnumber Republicans, although non-aligned voters remain the Granite State’s largest bloc. In Arizona, Democrats have cut the GOP advantage of registered voters by half between four years ago and August to a narrow 2.4 percentage points. Nationally, Democrats are also expecting non-traditional and first-time voters to off-set Republicans’ advantages. And women and seniors — groups that have fled Trump — have been returning their ballots at quick clips, according to analysis in the swing states.
Still, it’s clear that Republicans are flexing the muscle of incumbency. Democrats appear receding in crucial states. Polls offer Democrats reasons to be bullish, but raw numbers suggest that advantages for the invite list to polling stations don’t translate to who actually shows up, or guarantee how they’ll behave when they take their seats. It’s why Republicans — despite a President bent on thwarting himself and fellow Republicans — still are holding out hope that they’ll retain power early next year. Fading Democratic advantages may be so well baked into the math that Republicans can ignore the antics of a President determined to fritter away four years of the quiet, banal work of signing people up.
Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the daily D.C. Brief newsletter.