Monday, September 19, 2022

NC Unaffiliated Voters Are #1, but Where Are The Unaffiliated Candidates?

By Christopher Cooper

As most readers of this blog know, Unaffiliated registered voters now outnumber registered Democrats or Republicans in North Carolina. This fact has been highlighted by print, television, and radio journalists across the state. We've written about it a few times ourselves.  

But what about the candidates? Have we seen an uptick in Unaffiliated candidates as the number of Unaffiliated voters have risen? Are Unaffiliated candidates any more successful in a world where "none of the above" dominates in terms of partisan identification? Inspired by questions from Ridge Public Radio regional reporter Lilly Knoepp, I decided to dig into the data and find out.

How I did My Research

To find out more about unaffiliated candidates, I scraped the list of candidates who ran for partisan offices (nonpartisan elections are excluded) in every North Carolina election from 2010-2022. The raw data are available on the NCSBE web site here

I then coded each candidate for the office they were running for, the factors associated with their election (number of candidates, number of seats open, etc.), and what happened after the votes were counted. The data that I refer to below are all available here.

Before getting to the analysis, I am required by the laws of pedantic social science to offer a few caveats:

Caveat 1: I can't speak to what happened prior to 2010. For example, The NC Association of County Commissioners indicates that 14 "independent" county commissioners were elected prior to 2010. I expect there are also a smattering of Unaffiliated candidates and winners for other offices after the introduction of the category in 1977, but prior to 2010. Unfortunately, I have no way of knowing who they were, what the details of their elections were, etc.

Caveat 2: I am only speaking to people listed on the ballot. It is possible that some other Unaffiliated candidates were elected in write-in campaigns. I just don't know

Caveat 3: This analysis is limited to Unaffiliated candidates who were elected in partisan elections. I have no doubt that there are a number of candidates and winners in nonpartisan contests who are themselves Unaffiliated voters. The question, however, is whether Unaffiliated candidates can now win in a partisan environment. 

With those caveats out of the way, let's get to it.

Has the Number of Unaffiliated Candidates Increased?

One might think that in a time of massive increase in Unaffiliated voters, we would see a similar increase in the number of Unaffiliated candidates. Even with everything we know about the power of the two-party system, this Unaffiliated enthusiasm must have translated to at least some increase on the candidate side of the equation, right? 


The figure below shows the percent of all candidates running for partisan offices in North Carolina in a given year by political party. The Democratic share of the candidate pool is represented by the blue line with circles for each year where there were partisan elections. The red line with squares represents the share of Republican candidates. The green line with triangles shows the share of third party candidates, and the Purple line with diamonds bottom, represents the Unaffiliated candidates. 

From 2010 to 2022, the share of Unaffiliated voters in the electorate rose from 23% to 35%. Over the same time period, the share of Unaffiliated candidates running for partisan office rose from 3.58% of all candidates to 3.63% of candidates--a small blip on the electoral radar and not exactly a meteoric increase. 

Quick side note: you may notice some weird blips in odd-numbered elections. Elections in odd years are...well...odd. There aren't many elections to start with and the ones that do occur tend to be non-partisan affairs. That's why the graph doesn't show any data for 2021; there was not a single partisan election in the state. The dearth of elections also explains the Unaffiliated candidate uptick in 2013, when about 5% of all candidates were Unaffiliated. While that may look comparatively impressive, there were only 79 candidates running for partisan offices statewide, so the total number of Unaffiliated candidates that year could fit into a Ford Fiesta.

If you want to see the trends with those pesky odd years removed, here you go:


What Do Unaffiliated Candidates Run For?

From 2010-2022, 261 Unaffiliated candidates ran for partisan offices in North Carolina, that's 2.9% of the total number of candidates over that time period. 

But what did they run for? As the figure below shows, the majority (52% of the total) ran for county commission, followed by board of education (18%), and then Sheriff (17%). A smattering of Unaffiliated candidates over the last dozen years have run for partisan elections for Clerk of Courts, Judge, General Assembly, Register of Deeds and City Council. One person (Ben Scales in 2014) ran for District Attorney as an Unaffiliated candidate. No one has run as an Unaffiliated candidate statewide for any other office. 

How Often Do Unaffiliated Candidates Win?

We now know that in the last dozen years, Unaffiliated candidates rarely run for office in North Carolina. But when they do run, how often do they win? 

About as often as someone completes the Assault on Mt. Mitchell and feels like they've got another 100 miles in their legs. Which is to say, rarely. 

From 2010 to 2020, Unaffiliated candidates have chalked up 33 total electoral wins. That's a 12% winning percentage. If Unaffiliated candidates were a baseball team, they'd have the worst record in Major League Baseball History.

It gets worse. In 9 of those 33 electoral victories, there were no Democrats or Republicans on the ballot meaning that an Unaffiliated candidate was guaranteed a victory before a single vote was cast.

When Unaffiliated candidates lose, they also tend to lose badly. In three out of every four elections where Unaffiliated candidates ran for office over the last decade, they finished in last place. 

When they do emerge victorious, they are most likely to do so as County Commissioners (16 electoral wins), followed by Board of Education (7 successful elections), Judge (4), and City Council (2). One Unaffiliated candidate has won for Register of Deeds, Clerk of Courts, District Attorney, and General Assembly from 2010-2020. No Unaffiliated candidate has won election for Sheriff throughout this time period .

This link includes the full list of Unaffiliated winners in partisan elections in NC from 2010 to the present. If there were a Hall of Fame for Unaffiliated Candidates, these folks would make up the inaugural class. 

But Why?

Despite the massive increase in the proportion of voters who register as Unaffiliated, the number of Unaffiliated candidates remains tiny. And Unaffiliated candidates make up just .3% of the people who took office from 2010-2010. Those numbers show no signs of changing any time soon. So, what gives?

Simply put: it's hard to be an Unaffiliated candidate. Getting on the ballot requires a massive signature campaign. There is no party network to provide support. There is not even anyone on the State Board of Elections who shares an affiliation with "none of the above."

Given the difficulty of getting on the ballot as an Unaffiliated candidate compared to the relative ease of getting on the ballot as a partisan, it is not surprising that few people run as Unaffiliated candidates. 

Even once an Unaffiliated candidate gets on the ballot, they face long odds to victory, an inconvenient truth reinforced by the fact that Unaffiliated candidates rarely appear in debates or get much media coverage. And, of course, there is no cue on the ballot letting voters know where the Unaffiliated candidate stands on the issues. All of this reduces odds that the next generation of candidates will run or win as Unaffiliated. And the cycle continues. [1]

Don't Expect the Answer to Change Anytime Soon

Every now and again Appalachian State beats Texas A&M in football. Sometimes Marshall beats Notre Dame (sorry, Susan Roberts). But these outcomes are notable because they're so unusual. Unless there are changes to make NCAA athletics more equitable, top athletes will still sign with the Aggies or Fighting Irish over the Mountaineers or the Thundering Heard. 

And unless we change our electoral structures, most quality candidates will likewise continue to run with one of the two major parties. 


Chris Cooper is the Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University. He tweets at @chriscooperwcu

[1] Perhaps because of the advantages afforded by partisanship, some of aforementioned Unaffiliated Hall of Fame members later abandoned their Unaffiliated status. Ben Scales (the sole Unaffiliated DA to serve in NC over these years) later switched his affiliation to Democrat, and Jack Debnam (likely the first Unaffiliated County Commission Chair in the state) recently chaired the Jackson County Republican Party. There are likely more examples; those are just two  I'm familiar with.