Volusia, Flagler Republican parties see surge in voter registration as books close for the 2020 presidential preference primary, contrary to a statewide move toward more Democrats.

A months-long effort by the Florida Democratic Party has resulted in Democrats registering 17,000 more voters than Republicans since the 2018 midterm elections.


In Volusia and Flagler counties, where President Donald Trump won big in 2016, Republicans have been ascendant, bucking the statewide pattern.


“This is the first time we’ve increased our margins over Republicans in nearly a decade,” said Juan Peņalosa, executive director of the state Democratic Party. “The fact that we’ve been able to close that gap and increase the margin speaks well for our effort and our opportunities moving forward.”


With 219 delegates up for grabs, Florida is the biggest prize of the four March 17 primaries, when voters here as well as in Arizona, Ohio and Illinois will help decide if Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders is best positioned to upend Trump in November.


[READ ALSO: Volusia Republican Dominance]


Florida is a closed primary, meaning voters must vote for candidates in their party only. So the contest over voter registrations at this point speaks more to voter enthusiasm than muscle at the polls.


“It’s a signal to the candidates that this is a place they need to visit, spend time in, and go after,” said Susan MacManus, a longtime political analyst and now professor emeritus at the University of South Florida. “Come on down.”


Florida Democratic Party officials say they are looking for a solid turnout on March 17. They plan to continue to door-knock, mobilize neighborhood teams and keep up their current pace of registering almost 500 new voters each day.


And while the focus of election politics is Florida’s primary later this month, the competition between the parties for new voters is being fought with an eye toward November.


Trump, in 2016, won Florida by a margin of only 1% of the vote, despite the fact that Democrats had almost 7% more registered voters than Republicans.


And that gap has since narrowed. While Democrats still lead Republicans by 280,000 in total number of registered voters in Florida, the margin between the two parties has decreased to about 5.5%, according to the Florida Division of Elections.


And there is another concern for Democrats: voters not registered with a political party, listed on voter rolls as no party affiliation.


“We need to do a better job of reaching out to NPA voters,” Peņalosa said. “No longer are we going to focus on the little sliver of the electorate — we are going to expand or outreach.”


The number of non-affiliated voters in Florida has increased 17 percent since 2016, currently accounting for 3,620,513 people, or 27.5 percent of registered voters. It is a significant number, which represents over three times the total of votes by which Trump in 2016 won the state. Again, in the March 17 primary, NPA voters will not be able to vote for a presidential candidate.


“In Florida, if you register at the DMV, which is how hundreds of thousands register to vote, the default is No Party Affiliation,” Peņalosa said of one possible reason for high NPA numbers. “We’re looking at those NPA’s we believe are persuadable voters, reaching out and encouraging them to register as Democrats.”


In Volusia County, 414,961 voters were registered in time for the March 17 primary. Republicans have a 36.8% share of the active voters; Democrats are at 33.8%.


Volusia County has 41,151 inactive voters — those who haven’t voted in recent elections and are in a process heading toward removal from the rolls. Democrats have about 4,000 more inactive voters than Republicans.


Still, since 2012, when President Barack Obama won re-election, Volusia Republicans have 26% more active voters; Volusia Democrats have added just 3% since that time.


Volusia County Republican Party Chair Paul Deering said his volunteers have been passionate about voter registration, but he expects better numbers after the primary, which Trump is expected to win with more than 90%.


“I don’t think we’re doing as great a job as we can,” Deering said. “The room for improvement should always be the biggest room in the house.”


Flagler County’s registration shows a similar story. Of 87,411 active voters, Republicans have 35.6% of the total; Democrats have 31.2%.


There are nearly 55% more Flagler Republicans in 2020 than in 2012; Flagler Democrats have grown by about 14% over that stretch.


But simply looking at the number of registered voters can be misleading, MacManus said.


“Registration is one thing, but turnout is the more difficult piece of the puzzle,” MacManus said. “Republicans have a history of higher turnout.”


— Staff Writer Mark Harper contributed to this report.