It was this past Saturday that many who track NC politics had been waiting for--well, maybe 3 or 4 of us, but we saw it coming. Saturday's NC State Board of Elections data file showed that registered unaffiliated voters now outnumber registered Republicans statewide, and working towards the level of registered Democrats.
In looking at the September 9, 2017 data of the 6.7 million registered voters in the Old North State, registered unaffiliated voters were a total of 55 voters now above registered Republicans, marking the first time in the state's history that one of the two major parties was surpassed by voters who eschewed a party label in their voter registration.
So a couple of questions: first, where did this "rise of the unaffiliated" come from?
It's been some time in the making in North Carolina, but the trend lines speak for themselves. This graph shows the party registration figures, general for the first of each year since 2004:
Back in 2004, registered unaffiliated voters were only 17.7 percent of the pool, while registered Democrats were 47.6 percent and registered Republicans were 34.5 percent of the 5 million registered citizens.
Fast forward to September 9, 2017, and the 6.7 million registered North Carolinians break down into 39 percent registered Democrats, 30 percent registered unaffiliated, and 30 percent registered Republicans.
So who exactly are registering as unaffiliated in North Carolina? One of the key trends that I think is happening in the state, and across the nation, is the rise of the Millennial, those born in and after 1981. In breaking down the 6.7 million registered NC voters into generational cohorts (GenXers born between 1965 and 1980; Baby Boomers born between 1945 and 1965; the Greatest/Silent generations born before 1945), you find where the unaffiliated rise comes from:
Registering Millennials are breaking with both political parties and registering unaffiliated at 40 percent, while the generational cohorts have smaller middle bands of unaffiliated registration.
This generational shift has been occurring in North Carolina since 2008, most likely due to the Obama ground game in the state, but has only accelerated. In looking at the voter pool as of 9-9-17 and which year that the voters in that pool registered in, one sees the growing dominance of voters under the age of 36 in the past decade:
In 2016, almost 60 percent of North Carolina's voters who registered that year were Millennials.
Exploring these generational differences reveals some interesting trends; for example, the location of the voter is an important consideration to take into account, between urban, suburban, and rural counties of the state:
Millennials in urban counties should not surprise anyone, since research has tended to show that this generation prefers high density areas. Conversely, 54 percent of the Greatest & Silent generations prefer rural and suburban counties.
Beyond just where these voters live, we also find a distinct racial composition difference between the generations:
Millennials are the most racially diverse generation, and that is reflected in the fact that 38 percent of registered Millennial voters are non-white.
Exploring both white and black/African-American voters in North Carolina, differences are very apparent, but the unaffiliated trends are most pronounced within younger voters. For example, white voters in the South tend to be majority Republican, but younger NC voters are not following their older counterparts in registration affiliation:
Among NC black voters, the "post" civil rights generation may begin to show some independence from the strong Democratic allegiance and registration that the older generations have shown:
While their voter registration shows less than three-quarters of black NC voters registering with the Democratic Party, their voting patterns tend to show strong allegiance to Democrats.
Finally, in looking at the urban/suburban/rural divide within North Carolina's counties, the unaffiliated voters are becoming pronounced in urban and suburban counties, to the consternation of both political parties:
Unaffiliated voters are second within urban counties and suburban counties, making Republicans third in urban counties and Democrats third in suburban counties. Only in rural counties are unaffiliated voters trailing the two major parties in registration.
But here's a key point that must be made: being unaffiliated in registration does not mean you are politically independent. In fact, self-identifying as a political independent does not mean you aren't partisan either. In looking at the American National Election Study for 2016, when asked to indicate one's strength of partisanship and then their vote choice, those who are "independent leaners" tend to be as partisan as those who self-identify with one of the two political parties:
This trend of independent leaners being "faux independents" has been with us for some time, and the true national percentage of independent independents is typically 10 to 15 percent in a presidential election.
And when you look at the generation cohorts and their 2016 presidential vote choice, at least at the national level, you see the Democratic affiliation among Millennials in stark contrast to the other generations:
So, while unaffiliated voters in North Carolina are the fastest growing group among registration, the clarification of (at least thinking that North Carolina may, in some ways, reflect some of the trends of the nation), it is important to consider whether they truly are "unaffiliated" in their partisan allegiances, or whether they simply eschew the party label, but cast their ballots in secret as partisan as the next generation.