Unaffiliated voters now No. 2 as party passes Republican volumes in North Carolina, but bad news for Democrat

Chris Keane / —Reuters
An election worker checks a voter's driver’s license.

RALEIGH — For the first time in history, the number of unaffiliated voters in North Carolina has eclipsed one of the two major political parties.

Sometime between September 2 and September 9, the population of registered unaffiliated voters surpassed registered Republicans in the state. Figures released by the State Board of Elections put independents at 2,058,201 on Tuesday — nearly 2,000 voters ahead of the GOP.

The unaffiliated bloc gained a staggering 652,823 supporters in the last decade — increasing from roughly 22 percent to 30.3 percent of the population today.

And while Democrats still claim the largest bloc of registered voters — with a roll of 2,640,729 — the news of Republicans placing third isn’t exactly something they should be celebrating. While overall population has risen in North Carolina, Democrats have been losing party members — and maybe the unaffiliated bloc is absorbing them.

Between 2009 and 2013, Democrats lost around 32,000 loyalists and that number more than tripled in the last five years — with the loss of 101,600 total party members.

On the flip side, Republicans have gained more than 51,000 voters since 2009, with the vast majority enrolling during President Barack Obama’s second term.

Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director for the NC-GOP, says this is nothing but good news.

“Republicans are thrilled about the general direction of voter registrations trends in North Carolina,” said Woodhouse in an email to the press. “The most important factor to us are changes in partisan registration. Republicans have dramatically closed the gap on Democrats and continue to do so, even this year.”

Republicans now trail Democrats by about 584,500 as compared to 865,863 when Obama was first elected.

“While yielding 2nd place in voter registration numbers to unaffiliated voters, Republicans continue to hold their own in voter registration,” Susan Myrick from the conservative Civitas Institute noted in an online analysis of the figures last week.

Myrick’s comment refers directly to the party shares of the overall electorate — which paints a very different story than sheer voter numbers.

In 2009, Republicans captured roughly 32 percent of the overall voting population in North Carolina. Since then, conservatives have lost 1.62 percent of their total electorate, while Democrats saw a much more dramatic decrease in the same period.

When Obama took office, Democrats made up 45.7 percent of the state voting bloc, but today they hold 38.9 percent — an influential loss of 6.8 percentage points.

And while the ranks of the unaffiliated may be absorbing some of those moderate Democrats bidding adieu, the gains for the independent caucus are wildly unpredictable.

“Unaffiliateds, as a voting bloc, are some of the laziest voters in the state,” said Mike Rusher, a political and business consultant at the Results Company in Raleigh who closely tracked and analyzed statewide turnout during the 2016 election, “while Republicans and Democrats consistently turn out.”

In 2012, about 73 percent of all registered Republicans and 70 percent of all Democrats in North Carolina came out to the vote in the presidential election that saw Mitt Romney challenge then-President Barack Obama. Comparatively, only 60 percent of registered unaffiliated showed up to the polls that November.

So with an unpredictable voting bloc, will the unaffiliated flux really change the face of Tarheel politics or simply pour more gasoline onto the partisan fire?

Unfortunately, Rusher believes the drive to the independent caucus may be a “side effect” of being blistered with campaign ads since Obama won the state in 2008 and thrust North Carolina into “swing state” status.

“People started to really take a step back and say — hey, what does it mean for me to be registered as a Democrat or Republican?” the former McCrory cabinet staffer said.

But even so, he says he’d still call North Carolina a purple state, “with an extra shade of red.”