By Susan Roberts & Michael Bitzer
As has been noted in several news articles, numerous North Carolina registered Republican voters have left the party to another registration, most notably going 'unaffiliated' in their party status. Some speculation for the switch could be due to the storming of the Capitol at January 6th insurrection.
Yet even before the divisive nature of the 2020 election came to a head, public opinion polls have shown a deepening and unsettling frustration with the two major parties since the 2000s. However, a closer examination is needed of the actual number of North Carolina Republicans abandoning their party label in the context of the 2020 Election, its aftermath, and potentially in light of the events of January 6.
Party registration can be fluid, and in this day of intense party polarization, it might be thought that only the true partisan—the loyalists, the die-hards—associates with a party, while other voters may want to avoid the public party label for the comfort of being ‘unaffiliated’ in their party registration status (granted, this could be just one of many reasons). Even before the divisive election of Donald Trump in 2016, some Americans were calculating the social desirability of identifying with either party.
But while a few weeks data can paint a picture of the party switchers, we decided to look more broadly and deeply into the data to see what has happened since the general election last year, and in particular who these North Carolina GOP defectors are, based on some key demographic details.
For this analysis, we took the data from the January 30, 2021 voter registration data (for active, inactive, and temporary voters) to serve as the basis for the analysis. Next, we combined that data file with information from the November 7, 2020 voter registration data file, which was immediately after the general election. We also added the voter registration data from both December 5, 2020 and January 16, 2021 to look at a month after the election and into the new year.
In comparing the November 11 to December 5, 2020 data on party registrations, 2,884 Republicans had switched their party affiliation to unaffiliated in the first month after the general election. Among registered Democrats, 2,993 switched to unaffiliated status, making a comparable number of partisans 'going unaffiliated.'
With the November 11 and January 16 data, 7,293 Republicans had switched to unaffiliated, while 5,972 Democrats had switched to unaffiliated, a slightly greater number of Republicans switching, compared to Democrats, in the ten days after the insurrection.
Two weeks later, with the November 11 and January 30 data, the numbers significantly departed among partisan registrants. Among registered Democrats, 7,598 had switched to unaffiliated status, while among registered Republicans, 14,629—nearly twice the number as Democrats—had switched to unaffiliated.
Out of curiosity, we analyzed the number of party switchers in the same time period following the 2016 election (using the voter registration data from November 11, 2016 and January 30, 2017). During that period, 4,448 Republicans changed to unaffiliated, with 5,835 Democrats switching to unaffiliated status.
For the number of Republicans switching their party registration to unaffiliated to be double that of Democrats so far this year seems to indicate a withdrawal from the GOP party label. While changing party registration is fairly easy nowadays (it can be done online), it does take some time and investigation by voters to do so. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the switchers won’t still be Republican voters. As research into voter behavior continues to show, just because one publicly identifies as ‘independent’ doesn’t mean that they aren’t partisan in the voting booth.
So who are these nearly 15,000 Republicans who left the party for unaffiliated status?
Not surprisingly, 81 percent are White non-Hispanic voters, with the next largest group (at 14 percent) are voters who did not indicate a race and/or ethnicity when they registered to vote.
What is of interest is the gender dynamics of these switchers. More men switched their Republican registration to unaffiliated than women: 45 percent of the GOP-to-unaffiliated were men, with 43 percent women (12 percent were unknown/unreported).
Among the generations, Boomers were a third of the switchers, with Generation X being 30 percent, Millennials a quarter, and Generation Z at 8 percent. Only 3 percent were among the oldest voters, Greatest & Silent generations.
Overall, Republican registration among Boomers is 36 percent (second only to Greatest/Silent at 37 percent), with registered unaffiliated voters at only 26 percent within the Boomer cohort. This compares to the state-wide percentages of 33 percent unaffiliated to 31 percent Republican.
Finally, voters in North Carolina’s ‘urban suburbs’ (outside of a central urban city but inside that urban county) were 35 percent of the switchers, followed by surrounding suburban county voters at 30 percent. All told, two-thirds of the switchers came from suburban North Carolina, as opposed to 19 percent from urban cities and 16 percent from rural counties.
For a comparison, the urban-suburbs are 31 percent unaffiliated, 30 percent Republican, and 29 percent Democratic. The surrounding suburban counties are the most Republican registered areas of the state, with 40 percent GOP to 33 percent unaffiliated, and 26 percent Democratic.
It is important to note that in the grand scheme of things, these 15,000 Republican switchers (and 7,600 Democratic switchers) are just a small drop in the bucket when compared to the state’s 7 million total voters (made up of 2.48 million registered Democrats, 2.3 million unaffiliated, and 2.1 million Republicans).
What might be the implications of increase in unaffiliated voters and the demographics behind them mean for North Carolina?
One potential hypothesis might be that the January 6 events and the resulting second impeachment of Donald Trump broke the final straw for these voters. Having the opportunity to switch to a seemingly ‘non-partisan’ unaffiliated status may be a rebuke to the party in the guise of “I’ve had enough."
One advantage, at least in North Carolina, of registered unaffiliated is that the voter can still select the GOP in a primary election. It will be key to watch what happens to these Republican switchers in the future: if they go back to GOP registration sometime in the future, or if they participate in a primary election (most notably for the U.S. Senate next year).
The suburban nature of the switchers could be an interesting pattern to watch, as the base of the Republican Party (both in registration and in votes) is found in the state's surrounding suburban counties.
In conclusion, partisan identification has long been seen by political scientists as the single best predictor of how an individual will vote. With growing numbers of voters choosing to register as “unaffiliated,” election predictions at any level may prove more problematic. Undoubtedly, North Carolina will remain a battleground state, and voters will be looking to cues beyond a party label to make their decisions.
Dr. Susan Roberts is a professor of political science at Davidson College; she tweets at @profsuroberts.
Dr. Michael Bitzer is the Leonard Chair of political science and professor of politics and history at Catawba College; he tweets at @BowTiePolitics.