Tracking the Purple Wave: N.C. Voters Turn Away from Party Labels

In June 2017, the New York Times Magazine pondered: “Is North Carolina the Future of American Politics?” As legislators dueled over the controversial “bathroom bill,” the national piece panned the state as “narrowly split between Democratic and Republican Parties that agree on virtually nothing.”

Here in 2018, North Carolina voters agree on something at a staggering rate: don’t register with one of the two major parties.

Since Donald Trump’s June 2015 announcement that he was running for president, North Carolina voter rolls swelled by 680,000 voters. The metamorphosis was independent-minded, as almost 70 percent of voter movement was in the unaffiliated column (+465,311). Republicans came in second at 23 percent (+159,483), followed by Democrats at six percent (+43,935). The remaining three percent were under Libertarian, or newly-recognized Green and Constitution.

While voters can mask their party identity, they can’t hide where they live. An analysis of N.C. Board of Elections voter statistics (6/20/2015 vs. 9/22/2018) and Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM) county population forecasts (7/2018) shows the height of the purple wave of unaffiliated voters.

The spike in unaffiliated voters comes amid vigorous population growth across North Carolina. Projections from the OSBM demographer show 26 counties will balloon between 11 and 28 percent over the next decade. Many are in and around metropolitan regions.

But not every town is on the upswing. According to a 2017 Carolina Population Center at UNC-Chapel Hill study, 41 percent of N.C.’s municipalities added little to no population since 2010. In 29 counties, OSBM expects that trend to continue through 2027.

Just how purple will the state look politically in the future? The past three years of voter registration patterns offer some clues.

Unaffiliated voter rolls grew in all 100 counties. But in key urban areas (Wake, Mecklenburg) and suburban (Johnston, Harnett, Chatham, Franklin, Cabarrus), the transition was robust, with increases of at least 30 percent.

Democrats’ progress was concentrated in cities. The party’s most substantial gains were in the two largest counties – Wake (+10 percent) and Mecklenburg (+11 percent). Democrats lost voters in 77 smaller counties – about half of which also lost overall population.

Republican strongholds were centered in suburban counties. Examples around the Triangle include Johnston (+15 percent) and Harnett (+16 percent). The GOP added voters in Wake and Mecklenburg – but at a weaker rate of 5-6 percent.

The scope of the purple wave could tip an election. Across the seven Triangle and Triad counties – Wake, Durham, Orange, Forsyth, Guilford, Randolph and Davidson – there was a jump of nearly 140,000 registered independent voters. Looking back at the 2016 election in North Carolina, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 173,315 votes.

In “pivot counties,” more purple voters but fewer people. Some of the most perplexing 2016 election results were in N.C.’s six “pivot counties” – places that voted for Barack Obama twice, and then Trump. The registration patterns are just as baffling, with an asterisk. Robeson County unaffiliated voters surged by 46 percent, but the region lost 1.4 percent in population. Bladen County’s unaffiliated bloc jumped 31 percent. But overall population fell by 2.4 percent.

When the registered “unaffiliated” passed “Republican” in September 2017, N.C. GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse proclaimed his party won the independent vote in every election since 2010. PolitiFact ruled Woodhouse’s assertion as “mostly true,” pointing to election results and exit polls as evidence.

But in a big data era, where traditional polling is in transition, fewer North Carolinians are “North Carolinians.” Migration is driving population patterns. From July 2016 to July 2017, three in four new residents came from out of state. A different kind of majority than winning an election is also approaching. Almost half of the state’s registered voters are non-native.

As North Carolina counties see increases in independent voters in the tens of thousands, many of whom hail from other home states, a key question going forward is: how will Republican or Democratic strategists determine which “unaffiliated” segments are most ripe to target? It’s a wave that started well before November 2018 – a definitively purple one.

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