Monday, August 3, 2020

Lay of the Political Landscape: NC's 7M Registered Voters

As we draw closer to this month's nomination conventions and then Labor Day's 'unofficial' official start to the fall campaign season, Old North State Politics will be running a series looking at the 'lay of the political land' when it comes to North Carolina's pool of registered voters, the General Assembly, the thirteen U.S. House districts, and the gubernatorial, U.S. Senate, and presidential contests. Between now and early September, each week will have a new post analyzing the data and dynamics and giving some assessment (but not a forecast) of what to look for in November. This week we start with a ground-level analysis of the state's registered voter pool, followed later this week with the upper chamber of the General Assembly, the North Carolina state senate. 

By Michael Bitzer

As we inch towards the general election on Tuesday, November 3rd, we are starting to see North Carolina's voter registration pool shape up, with some key demographics and factors at play in the eligible pool of voters. And even with COVID-19, the numbers are on pace with four years ago, although there are some interesting patterns shaping up within the voter pool. 

Recently, North Carolina again went over 7 million registered voters, which the state has done before, but due to comprehensive maintenance of the voter rolls, that number dipped below 7M in January 2019 thanks to the removed voters.

With the August 1, 2020 statewide data file, we can look at not just the current standing of registered voters in the Old North State, but we can also get a profile of this year's registered voters who have been added to the pool so far.

Of the 7,040,308 voters in the August 1 data file, party registrations have remained consistent throughout the year: 36 percent are registered Democrats, 33 percent registered Unaffiliated, and 30 percent registered Republicans, with the remainder made up of registered Libertarians, Greens, and Constitution party voters.

As will undoubtably be the standard mantra of the next three months, "it's all about who shows up" by 7:30 PM on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November. In other words, turnout always determines the election. And with each group of registered voter, I'll give you a sense of the registered voter turnout rates from 2016. 

Four years ago, when the overall registered voter turnout was 69 percent, we saw turnout vary considerably among the party registrations: registered Republicans had the highest turnout rate, at 75 percent, following by registered Democrats at 68, while 63 percent of registered unaffiliated voters showed up to cast ballots.

What about NC's voters by race and ethnicity?

In looking at the demographics of the voter pool, I decided to combine both voter race with ethnicity to try and derive a more nuanced sense of the 7 million NC voters. Now, a word of caution: as noted by fellow ONSP contributor and colleague Chris Cooper, the state is experiencing the "rise of the nones," with some voters not selecting racial or ethnic categories when they register. More on this important phenomenon, and especially for this year's new registrants, later in this piece.

So, what we may actually be seeing is an undercount of the various categories that I will show in the race-ethnicity demographics, but this gives us a potential ground floor sense of where things are within the voter pool.

Slightly less than two-thirds of North Carolina's voter identify themselves as white/non-Hispanic, while 21 percent are Black/African American and non-Hispanic. The next largest category are the 'nones,' those who didn't identify a race and/or ethnicity, at six percent. Hispanic/Latinos of any race are three percent of the pool, with all other categories (Asian, Indian American/Alaska Native, multi-racial, or other race) below two percent each.

Among the party registrations for each of the racial-ethnic classifications, distinctive partisan, and non-partisan, advantages are evident.

Registered Republicans are a plurality (41 percent) of white non-Hispanic voters, while among all categories of voters of color or unreported, registered Republicans are below 20 percent. An interesting trend is happening among Black/African American voters, in that the percentage of registered Democrats has slipped below 80 percent; this is primarily due to Black voters under the age of 40 deciding to registered unaffiliated. But, as we know from voter behavior, Democratic voting patterns are still very strong among Black voters, and will likely continue for some time.

So what did we see in terms of voter turnout among these different racial-ethnic groups? White non-Hispanic voters had the highest turnout rate, at 71 percent, with Black/African American non-Hispanic voters at 64 percent, down from the Obama election years of 71 percent. Among Hispanic/Latino voters, only 57 percent cast ballots, while Native Americans had a turnout rate of 51 percent.

Is there a gender gap among registered NC voters?

Like the national trend of a gender gap among voter choices, where women tend to be more Democratic while men tend to be more Republican, we see North Carolina women siding more with Democratic party registration, while North Carolina men are very much divided among the big three party registrations.

Of those voters who indicated their gender, women are a majority, and this is the norm in both registration and in the electorate.

Again, among those voters who didn't 'check the gender box,' unaffiliated party status is overwhelming choice, akin to what we saw in the racial-ethnicity 'unknowns' as well.

As expected, women had a higher voter turnout rate than men did four years ago: 70 percent of registered women cast ballots to 67 percent of men.

The Generational Transition, Both Nationally and in North Carolina

With the nation undergoing a significant generational transition, North Carolina's voter pool has been experiencing the shift as well. Over 37 percent of registered voters are under the age of 40, which makes Millennials and Generation Z the plurality of voters. And these two generations aren't just taking over the voter pool, they are reshaping it.

Both of the younger generations are driving the unaffiliated party status within the state: over 40 percent of Millennials, and almost 50 percent of Generation Z have declared their political label independence from either the Democratic or Republican registration ranks. But that doesn't necessarily mean these younger voters are political 'independents' and are up for grabs. As noted by the Pew Research Center in numerous studies, these under-40 voters are significantly Democratic in their allegiance.

And while it may seem that younger voters may have the political power due to their plurality standing in the pool, it's older voters who show up ultimately: in 2016, Boomers had the highest turnout generation, with 79 percent. Next were the Silent & Greatest generations, at 74 percent, followed by Generation X at 70 percent. Millennial registered voters in 2016 saw only 54 percent of their cohort show up to cast ballots.

NC's Regionalism: Only One Area is the Battleground

Much of the political commentary this fall will focus on the urban-rural divide, with the suburbs as the political frontlines. But to understand North Carolina's politics, and likely the rest of the nation, one needs to further delineate those suburban frontlines into two respective areas: urban county suburbs, those outside the central city's limits but within the same county, and the surrounding suburban counties to the urban counties.

And the voter registrations within both those suburban enclaves demonstrate the real difference in North Carolina.

While urban central cities are overwhelmingly Democratic (with less than 20 percent registered Republicans), the two suburbs show a real difference: urban county suburbs are nearly evenly split, with a slight advantage to the unaffiliated, while the surrounding suburbs are a plurality registered Republican. And this dynamic shows up in voting patterns as well.

In 2016's presidential contest between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, Trump won by 3.7 percentage points, just barely under 50 percent. But within three of the four regions, the votes weren't even close.

Only in the urban suburbs did the contest reflect a true 'coin-toss,' with Clinton barely taking the urban suburbs over Trump. However, in the surrounding suburbs, Trump beat Clinton by a margin of 32 percentage points, while Clinton turned around and beat Trump by an even wider margin (35 percentage points) in the central cities. Lastly, Trump beat Clinton in rural counties with a 21 percentage point margin. When all combined, especially based on the respective percentages that each region brings to the state-wide vote, you have a better understanding of why the Old North State can be so politically divided.

A similar pattern of three uncompetitive regions to one competitive is evident in the 2016 U.S. Senate race between Republican Richard Burr, who performed slightly better than Trump, against Democratic candidate Deborah Ross, and in the gubernatorial contest between incumbent Republican Pat McCrory and then Democratic challenger, and ultimate winner by a little over 10,000 votes, Roy Cooper.

Notice in the U.S. Senate contest that Burr was able to reverse the presidential performance in urban suburbs, winning those regions, while performing slightly better in central cities compared to Trump. What about the 2014 contest between then Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan and challenger (and now current incumbent) Republican Thom Tillis? You'll have to wait for Dr. Susan Robert's review and analysis of that race, but suffice it to say: the regional dynamics were similar.

And in the gubernatorial contest, Cooper had the highest percentage of the three top-of-the-ticket Democrats in both the central cities and urban suburbs, while keeping McCrory's Republican margins in surrounding suburbs and especially rural counties at a slightly closer level.

Come November, what may be the regional keys to watch for are Republican performances across the regions, especially in central cities (do GOP candidates drop below 30 percent?), the surrounding suburban counties (do GOP candidates drop below 60 percent?), and what happens in the urban suburbs: are they tight as a tick on a Plott Hound, or did that dog decide just not hunt for one party over the other?

The other factor? Again, each region's turnout: urban suburbs had the highest registered voter turnout rate at 71 percent, followed by surrounding suburban counties at 70 percent, rural counties at 68 percent, and central cities at 66 percent.

Who Has Registered Since January 1, 2020?

With that general overview of the entire 7M registered voters, I want to shift to who has registered to vote since the beginning of 2020. Generally, a typical pattern emerges in the state regarding voter registration numbers in presidential years: a run-up right before the presidential primary election in early spring, followed by the dog-days drop in the early summer, and a pick up heading into late summer and the start of the general campaign season of the fall.

But then, 2020 isn't necessarily like past presidential years, thanks in large part to COVID-19 and the mid-March 'stay at home' orders and subsequent months of coronavirus concerns. And notably, we did see a 'drop-off' post primary March, with a pick up in June and July.

January's spike was driven by pre-registration of 17 year olds into the voter pool. In dividing the actual numbers by party registration, the growth of unaffiliateds is evident.

Every one of the first seven months so far has seen unaffiliated registration status of at least 40 percent of the new registrants, while registered Democrats have ranged from 27 percent to 36 percent and registered Republicans from 23 percent to 32 percent. Through July, the year-to-date party breakdowns of new voters is 42 percent registered unaffiliated, 30 percent registered Democrats, and 27 percent registered Republicans.

But has 2020's newly registered voters followed the trends of the past? In the following chart, I give the monthly registration numbers for both 2016 and 2018 (a mid-term year with no major state-wide contest) as a comparison.

And next is the cumulative totals each month for new voter registrations.

Surprisingly, for all of the concerns of COVID-19, voter registration in North Carolina has pretty much matched the numbers from 2016.

Among race-ethnicity of these new voters, the recent use of DMV website may have increased the number of 'nones' to a significant level in the past few months.

Almost one-third of all the new registered voters in North Carolina did not give either a race or ethnicity answer, with the past few months showing pluralities of 'none.' This may be due to the younger voters simply choosing not to respond to the question, but it could be that other factors with the registration process may not include such responses. I have a question into the staff at the NC State Board of Elections to ask about this aspect.

As to the other demographic aspects of new registrants, nearly two-thirds of the state's newest voters are under the age of 40.

Again, the spike in January among Generation Z is due to the pre-registration process allowed for 17 year olds who turn 18 by election time.

But it's not just the dynamic of younger voters under 40 driving the new registrations, but also their party affiliations, again very evident in the month-to-month comparison between Generation Z and Millennials against 40 YO + new voters, Generation X and Boomers.

First, to date, Generation Z new voters are nearly 50 percent unaffiliated, with new voters who are Millennials at 44 percent unaffiliated. Republican registration for both generational cohorts is 22 percent, with Democrats at 28 and 31 respectively.

Now, compare the new registrants who are 40 years old or over and their partisan registration status.

While a plurality (38 percent) of GenXers registered unaffiliated, nearly a third of them registered Republican, with 29 percent going Democratic. Among Boomers, a similar 38 percent went Republican, with 31 percent unaffiliated and 30 percent Democratic.

Among the regions of this year's new voters, the central cities were pluralities of each month; however, if you combine both suburbs (inside urban counties and surrounding counties), than half of 2020's newest voters are suburbanites.

So Who Has Voted and Who Hasn't?

One of the known aspects of voting behavior is that if you have voted in a previous election, you are much more likely to vote subsequently. One of the great advantages of those of us who study North Carolina voters is the tremendous amount of data, even with its limitations, that is available to analyze.

One data source is a file with voter history in it, in which you can parse out an election and match the file to the voter registration data. In doing so, I can get a picture of the current 7 million registered voters, especially those who were registered in 2016 and voted, or didn't, and those who registered after 2016, especially by party registration.

Not surprising, current partisan registered voters who were registered in or prior to 2016 have higher percentages of voting in 2016: 84 percent of currently registered Republicans who were registered in 2016 or before cast a ballot that year, while 79 percent of registered Democrats did, and 74 percent of registered unaffiliated voters.

But since 2016 among the new voters to the pool, 43 percent of registered voters are unaffiliated, while 30 percent are registered Democrats and 26 percent are registered Republicans.

In looking at each party registration status, you can also see the differences among the current voters as to who participated in the last presidential election, who didn't but was eligible to do so, and who has joined in each status since 2016.

Hopefully this (albeit lengthy data-dive) analysis into North Carolina's voter registration paints a picture of who makes up the state's eligible pool of voters as of August 1. Now, if 2020 is like 2016, we may expect to see another 200,000 to 350,000 additional voters between August and the Saturday before November's general election. But in general, the pattern for various factors, especially demographics, is most likely baked for the coming general election.

Finally, as a public service announcement: if you are not registered to vote in North Carolina, you have up until October 9th to register and be able to vote on Election Day (Tuesday, November 3rd). You can utilize the NC Department of Motor Vehicles website to do so, or go into your county board of elections office. If you miss the October 9th deadline, you can still registered and vote at the same time via the state's Same Day Registration process during "absentee one-stop" voting, or early voting.

We'll continue this in-depth analysis and assessment of the various playing fields with our future "lay of the political landscape" series with a look at North Carolina's upper legislative chamber, the state senate.


Dr. Michael Bitzer holds the Leonard Chair of Political Science at Catawba College; he tweets at @BowTiePolitics.