Delaware is no longer in danger of becoming a one-party state. This is mostly because, ostensibly, it already is a one-party state. With Democrats holding every seat in the state’s Congressional delegation, along with the governorship, along with the lieutenant governorship, along with the attorney general’s office, along with every single statewide office save auditor, their control seems complete. And with no shortage of palatable statewide candidates, their control seems poised to continue into the foreseeable future.
What has happened to Delaware’s traditional status as a bellwether state? Prior to 2000, the last time that Delaware voted against the winner of the Presidential election was 1948, when it chose Thomas Dewey over the incumbent President Truman. And as recently as 1996, Bill Clinton won Delaware with just 52% of the popular vote, a close enough result to classify Delaware as a swing state. Just 17 years later, it appears that Delaware’s status as a swing state has concluded. Does this indicate that it is not merely unlikely, but impossible for Republicans to regain statewide offices beyond Tom Wagner’s auditor seat?
The most effective method of answering this question involves simply comparing voter registration statistics from the late 90s (and early ’00s) with current numbers. The results are telling.
In 1996, 42% of registered voters were Democrats, while 35% were Republican. Though this statistic points to a Democratic advantage, it is not necessarily indicative of one-party dominance, as “registered” Democrats typically outnumber “registered” Republicans. Similarly, in 2000, 43% of registered voters were Democrats, and 34% were Republicans, signifying a small, almost negligible shift in the Democratic direction.
In 2012, however, the numbers tell a different story. Registered Democrats now account for a full 48% of registered voters, with just 29% of registered voters identifying themselves as Republicans. This shift should alarm Republicans for two reasons. First, the obvious: Democrats hold a massive advantage in voter registration. And second, tellingly, the gains seem to come at the expense of Republican registration. Rather than simply siphoning off independents, with the allure of voting in competitive Democratic primaries, the Democrats have—successfully—gone after registered Republicans. The statistics from New Castle County, home to the state’s Democratic base, as well as the state’s moderate Republican base (the group of Republicans most likely to switch parties), exemplify this shift in voting patterns. In 2000, registered Democrats represented just over 43% of registered voters in the county. In 2012, they accounted for over 48%.
From a Republican standpoint, the statistics are yet another depressing reminder that Delaware, once the ultimate bellwether, has become a bastion of the Democratic Party. The question must be asked: Based on the voter registration data, is it at all possible for Republicans to win in Delaware?
The answer is yes. Voter registration is not completely indicative of the way in which a state will vote; skilled politicians who are members of the minority party, in terms of voter registration, have demonstrated an ability to overcome this deficiency. In Kentucky, for instance—a state which, I was surprised to learn, Democrats hold a whopping 55-38 edge in registration—Republicans hold both United States Senate seats. In heavily Democratic Illinois, Republican Mark Kirk won election to the Senate in 2010. And next door, in Pennsylvania, Democrats hold a 51-37 edge in voter registration, yet Republicans control the governorship, and also hold one of the state’s Senate seats.
Kentucky and Illinois are very different from Delaware, and the success of Republicans in those states has much to do with socially conservative Democrats voting for Republican candidates—something that would not occur in Delaware. However, the success of Republican candidates in Pennsylvania may offer a glimmer of hope to Delaware Republicans. Outnumbered does not necessarily mean obsolescence. With competitive, well-known candidates, the Republicans could yet take back statewide offices. But it remains to be seen whether or not they actually will.