Democrat? Republican? More voters choose neither

Posted November 13, 2012

'I voted' sticker

— Sometime between December 2011 and Election Day, Wake County quietly marked an electoral milestone that may determine the outcome of elections for years to come. 

The number of voters registered as "unaffiliated" surpassed the number of registered Republicans in the county home to the state's seat of government.

 In 2000, unaffiliated voters outnumbered one of the two major parties in only two relatively small counties. They outnumbered Democrats in Avery and Mitchell counties.

Today, there are more unaffiliated voters than Democrats in nine North Carolina counties, while unaffiliated voters outnumber Republicans in 30 counties, including voter-rich urban areas like Wake, Cumberland, Durham and Mecklenburg.

In two more counties, Currituck and Watauga, unaffiliated voters outnumber both Democrats and Republicans.

"If I was a leader in either party, that would be a real sobering reality for me to digest and to try to cope with," said Tom Fetzer, a political consultant and former state Republican Party chairman. "How do I make my party relevant and inviting?"

Nov. 10, 2012 Voter Registration






North Carolina Republicans are celebrating big wins in this year's gubernatorial, legislative and congressional elections. Compared to national trends, North Carolina is a bright spot on the national horizon for the GOP.

But Fetzer cautions that, four years ago, it was the Democrats celebrating big wins.

"Both parties have a challenge to remain relevant, because the vast majority of people are choosing to join neither," Fetzer said.

Statewide, unaffiliated voters are still the third-largest group behind Democrats and Republicans. But political observers say the boom in unaffiliated registration is a trend that doesn't appear to be abating.

"It's hard to know without survey data who these people are," said Ferrel Guillory, a journalism professor and director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "But it (the rise in unaffiliated voters) coincides with the tremendous population growth the state has had."

Those coming to North Carolina may be arriving from states where people don't declare their party affiliations or where the messages of the major parties don't sync with the messages put out by the parties in North Carolina. Anecdotal evidence suggests a significant portion of young voters seem to be choosing not to sign up with one party or another when they come of age. 

Also important: A fair number of unaffiliated voters are behaving like loyal Republicans or Democrats but have chosen not to declare themselves for one reason or another.

"It's easier to be an unaffiliated voter now, in the sense that you can still vote in primaries," Guillory said. "You used to have to be registered in party or the other to vote in a primary."

All of which is not to discount the power or importance of parties. Party affiliation is still a powerful predictor of how someone will behave when they go to vote. 

Out of 4.5 million votes cast in the state this year, 2.5 million were straight-party tickets, an increase from the number of straight-party ballots cast four years ago.

So North Carolina's electorate includes both party faithful as well as ticket-splitters. 

Exactly how many voters split their ticket in the state is unclear. But 171,000 more voters backed Pat McCrory, the Republican candidate for governor, than voted for Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee.

"There's probably a larger persuadable universe of voters than there was 20 years ago," said Tom Jenson, a pollster with the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling.

Democrats, he said, used to be able to win elections just by turning out their base. But unaffiliated North Carolina voters backed Republicans 2-1 at the polls, he said, a trend that helped bring about Republican legislative majorities in 2010 and 2012 and put McCrory in office. As Democrats look to recover from this year's drubbing, he said, reaching unaffiliated voters has to be part of the plan.

"It's particularly incumbent upon Democrats to come up with a message that's attractive to these unaffiliateds," he said.

As for Republicans, the growing number of unaffiliated voters should temper their enthusiasm.

"Unaffiliated voters are not voting Republican because they love Republicans," he said. Unaffiliated voters appear to have been punishing state-level Democrats, particularly Gov. Bev Perdue, for what they perceived as poor performance.

"If unaffiliated voters loved Republicans, they'd be Republicans. The easiest way for the Republican Party to blow their advantage is to take this as too much of a mandate."


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  • Ken D. Nov 14, 2012

    "I've see how the IRS now targets the vocal R's for audits under Obama"

    No, you haven't, because they have done no such thing. You are making that up, just like 95% of the nonsense that comes out of the mouths of the phonies who call themselves conservative these days.

    The way I figure it, anybody who could actually believe the garbage Republicans claim isn't smart enough to serve in an elected office.

  • G-man Nov 14, 2012

    We need a third party, The Welfare Party. Talk about a bought and paid for vote.

  • scoutmomx2 Nov 14, 2012

    Years ago I was forced to choose a party if I wanted to vote in the primaries. When that was no longer the case, I returned to being unaffiliated. I am neither Republican or Democrat - don't fit either profile. I haven't just moved here from out of state or recently become disillusioned with a particular party. I am not part of the "persuadable universe." I have my beliefs, opinions and values. My son, voting for the first time this year, is unaffiliated as well. We want to be able to vote for who we think is the best candidate, not for a particular party - good, bad or ugly. The down side? You get spammed, robocalled and junk mail from both parties.

  • baldchip Nov 14, 2012

    The party's themselves have caused this issue. In addition, we have caused all the issues in Congress by sending die hard libs and conservatives instead of moderates to DC.

    We are paying for those mistakes.

  • Brian Jenkins Nov 14, 2012

    I'd be happy to vote for Reagan again (assuming he's alive, cogent and eligible) but sadly the current republican party would never nominate him.
    November 14, 2012 2:37 p.m.
    Report abuse

    So true! Reagan would be a flaming socialist, liberal, illegal immigrant lover.

  • 426X3 Nov 14, 2012

    One more advantage to being registered as Unaffliated. You don't get as many of the phone calls and as much of the garbage mail as the registered donkeys and elephants do. Unaffliateds very seldom if ever get thier person in office though.

  • anderson Nov 14, 2012

    How was Reagan a conservative? He tripled the debt

    In his deal with the Dems, the Dems agreed to cut spending for every dollar of tax increases...Reagan's big folly was trusting the Dems to keep their word...oh, and he inherited such a mess ;)

  • anderson Nov 14, 2012

    I will always remain unaffiliated and vote for the candidate I think will best represent the country. From my observations, it won't be a Republican anytime soon.

    Sound like a Democrat to me

  • junkmail5 Nov 14, 2012

    Conservatism won easily with Reagan and with a REAL conservative would win again today

    Ronald Reagan would be thrown out of the convention center as a raging liberal by the current Grover Norquist worshiping Republican party...

    That's a major part of their current problem.

    What's funny is, Norquist claims he came up with his pledge because of Reagan- despite the fact Reagan not only didn't sign it, he repeatedly violated it during his presidency.

    I'd be happy to vote for Reagan again (assuming he's alive, cogent and eligible) but sadly the current republican party would never nominate him.

  • McLovin Nov 14, 2012

    I will never vote again - 90% of the posts on here are referring to elections as a game with the win/lose comments...thats sad...the people we vote into office decide the future and direction our country takes - right now we are in a losing direction, not like Romney wouldve corrected it...