Unaffiliated voters make up a plurality. So what?

Published March 17, 2022

By Thomas Mills

According to the State Board of Elections, unaffiliated voters now make up a plurality of voters in North Carolina. These independents surpassed Democrats for the first time in history. They surpassed Republicans a few years ago. It’s really not that big a deal and has been inevitable for decades. 

Voters have been migrating away from parties since at least the 1990s and they’ve been leaving the Democratic Party since the end of the one-party South almost 60 years ago. In rural counties, legacy Democrats are still on the books. They’ve been registered Democratic all of their lives but have been voting Republican since Reagan, especially at the federal level. As they die, the party’s share of voter registration will shrink, replaced mostly by people who register unaffiliated. 

Republicans, for their part, increased their share of registration beginning with the Democrats’ embrace of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and continued until about a decade ago. Since then, they’ve made up about 30% of the electorate, give or take a percentage or two. Expect Democrats to shrink until they reach roughly that percentage, too. 

 Most people who register today have little party loyalty even if they vote largely along party lines. A small share of those voters are too conservative or too nationalistic for the GOP. Another small share is too far left to embrace the Democratic Party. And the largest share are people who are largely fed up with the political rhetoric of the day to embrace Democrats or Republicans even if  they may be lean heavily liberal or conservative. 

Younger, more educated urban/suburban voters who register unaffiliated tend to support Democrats and will continue to so. Rural, exurban unaffiliated voters with less education will continue to support Republicans. Most of the people who will register with a party moving forward will be the most ardent partisans among us. People like me. 

 In modern politics, party registration gives us limited information about the electorate.  In 19 states, voters don’t even register by party. Targeting experts tend to use other data points to identify voters’ likely preference besides registration. The goal is to figure out who is undecided, not who is unaffiliated. 

While unaffiliated voters surpassing Democrats’ registration numbers may be a milestone, I have a bit of a shrug response. It’s been coming for decades and was utterly predictable. It doesn’t tell us much about the electorate and it doesn’t change the nature of our highly competitive state. The real milestone will be when Democrats’ registration numbers stabilize in a few years from now. Then, Democrats will be Democrats and Republicans will be Republicans and candidates can write them off as people they need to persuade.