CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Charlotte Observer) - To Republican consultant Dee Stewart, the best barometer of this year’s election outcomes is in the numbers — not in polls but in voter registrations.
“Everyone knows the statewide elections in North Carolina will be decided by a razor thin margin,” Stewart said. “I believe the secret weapon of increased voter registration will provide the margin of victory for Republicans.”
Through last week, North Carolina has seen a net gain of nearly 150,000 GOP registrations this year compared with 96,000 Democratic registrations, according to the State Board of Elections. The net gain in Unaffiliated voters was even higher — more than 193,000.
Even in a state with 7.3 million registered voters, Republicans see registration gains in North Carolina and other states as a silver lining in a year when many polls show President Donald Trump trailing Democrat Joe Biden.
But a deeper look at the numbers may suggest a more complicated picture of the state’s electorate.
“To me the big takeaway from all of this is Unaffiliated is the big winner,” said Chris Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University. “You can get into a geek fight about the definition of a new registrant versus a changing electorate. But the real winner is Unaffiliated.”
Republican registrations this year outpaced Democratic registrations in almost all N.C. counties, according to the Civitas Institute’s registration tracker. The exceptions have been in the state’s urban counties, which have seen more Democratic registrations. Because of their size, they’ve also seen more total registrations.
Andy Jackson, Civitas' elections policy analyst, said the figures are taken from the State Board of Elections and represent net changes. They include both newly registered voters and those who’ve left the state or otherwise fallen off voter rolls.
Overall, North Carolina’s electorate is divided almost in thirds.
Democrats comprise 35.6% of registered voters; Unaffiliateds, 33.4%; and Republicans 30.2%. (In 2016 Democrats made up 39% of the state’s registered voters and Unaffiliateds made up just 29.8%. The GOP share of the electorate was the same then as now.)
‘JESSECRATS’ ALIGNING REGISTRATION WITH VOTES
One way to look at the numbers is by looking at party switches.
This year about 25,500 N.C. Democrats have switched their registration to Republican, according to election board figures. At the same time, nearly 35,000 have switched to Unaffiliated.
“They’re registering the way they’ve voted,” Jackson said. “The old Jessecrats are now Republicans.”
“Jessecrats” are North Carolinians who were Democrats by registration but reliably crossed over to vote for the late Sen. Jesse Helms and other Republicans. As late as the early 1980s, more than 70% of the state’s voters were registered as Democrats, Cooper and Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer found.
At the same time Democrats were switching registration this year, so were Republicans. At least 9,700 flipped to Democrat and 28,200 re-registered as Unaffiliated.
Of the 2.7 million North Carolinians who already voted through Thursday, Democrats were outpacing their registration numbers. Republicans and Unaffiliated voters were slightly under-performing.
UNAFFILIATEDS MAY HOLD KEY
So who are the Unaffiliated voters?
Voters under 55, who are registering independent at a much higher rate than older voters, according to Old North State Politics, a blog by Cooper and Bitzer. And those under 40 are registering that way at an even faster clip.
Rachel Weber has seen that as the spokeswoman for NextGen North Carolina, a group funded by former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer to register young voters. She said 148,000 voters under 35 registered in North Carolina from September 1 through this month’s Oct. 9 deadline. (People also can register at early-voting sites.)
“A lot of young voters are registered unaffiliated,” said Weber, 26. “Young voters tend to identify with the issues instead of the party... We’re less likely to choose a party label. That’s not because we’re not voting for Democrats. We are looking for every tool in the tool box . . . to demand the changes we deserve on all the issues we care about.”
Around a third of Black voters who’ve registered in North Carolina since 2016 have registered as Unaffiliated, Old North State Politics reported. Almost half of Latinos who registered over that time signed up as Unaffiliated as well.
“Unaffiliated does not mean that you are politically independent,” Bitzer said. “It may mean that you just don’t like party labels (and) you want flexibility of being able to pick a primary.”
A Meredith College Poll released Friday showed that 54.6% of the state’s Unaffiliated voters prefer Biden and 28.2% back Trump.
Registrations, of course, are only important to the extent that people who register to vote follow through and vote. Still, the GOP’s net gain in 2020 registrations gives Republicans cause for optimism.