The Party’s Over

Commentary by Brad Hessel

Well, ok, maybe not quite yet. But the hosts are clearly cranky, and the guests are leaving in droves. In fact, three decades of consistently faster growth in the ranks of non-party-going independents in North Carolina will soon culminate in a significant milestone: they will become the largest block of registered voters. No one currently alive can remember when the Democrats weren't No. 1 in North Carolina.

This marks a sea change.

In 1993, only eight percent of voters registered as independent (labeled “unaffiliated” by the state board of elections). Every year since then, the number of independent voters grew more—or, in purge years, declined less—than the numbers of registered Democrats or Republicans. 

In 2017, the number of independents exceeded the number of Republicans statewide. And in April or May of this year, they will surpass the Democrats.

Independent voters now comprise more than one-third (35 percent) of the electorate, while the combined share of Democrats and Republicans has declined from 92 percent in 1993 to 65 percent today.

The 117,472 choices made by voters who changed their registrations last year starkly reflect this trend. More voters switched registration from a party to independent than moved into both the Democrat and Republican parties combined! This is true even if you discount the 10 thousand voters registered with the Green or Constitution parties who were involuntarily switched to unaffiliated by the NCSBE when those parties lost their ballot status last June.

Here’s a breakdown of where voters who changed registration went: 

Constitution Party: 486 (0.4%)
Democratic Party: 21,433 (18.3%)
Green Party: 162 (0.1%)
Libertarian Party: 2,959 (2.5%)
Republican Party: 25,173 (21.4%)
Independents: 67,259 (57.3%)

While both Democrats and Republicans are losing out to the independents and failing to grow as fast as overall growth in the number of registered voters, the Ds are doing much worse than the Rs. This is another consistent long-term trend that dates back to 1993 (the earliest year the NCSBE provides statewide voter registration totals on their website).

Here are the compounded annual growth rates—that is, how much growth occurred on average each year—since 1993:

Democratic Party—0.7%
Libertarian Party—14.0%
Republican Party—2.4%
All voters—2.6%

Early 2021 headlines proclaimed that NC Republicans were deserting the GOP in the wake of the January 6 Washington DC riot. However, the big wave of conversions early in the year turned out to be a blip. That’s hardly surprising. The GOP has consistently grown more than three times faster than the Democrats for the last 29 years. And in 2021—a post-Presidential-election purge year—the GOP ranks declined by three percent while the number of registered Democrats fell by five percent.

If this decades-long trend continues, by 2030, registered Republicans in North Carolina will also outnumber registered Democrats.

Meanwhile, the Libertarian Party remains the exception that proves the flight-from-parties rule. Since 1993, the LPNC has grown faster than Democrats, Republicans, and even independents every year (except for the three years the LPNC was off the ballot). The number of registered Libertarians has even grown in purge years when everyone else is generally down. That happened again in 2021: overall the number of registered voters declined by 2.5 percent…but the number of Libertarian voters increased by 1.6 percent.

That same pattern is evident in the conversion data. The independent and Libertarian share of the changed registrations was significantly higher than their share of voters overall, while the Democrats’ and Republicans’ share was lower.

The table below compares each group’s share of party switches to their share of the electorate. If a party’s share of switches was the same as their electorate share (1:1 ratio), then the conversions did not contribute to either growth or shrinkage. A ratio above that means the conversions contributed to growing that party. A ratio below 1:1 means the party is losing ground.

  Share of 2021 Switches Share of Electorate Switches:Electorate
Democrats 18.3% 34.7% 0.5:1
Libertarians 2.5% 0.7% 2.6:1
Republicans 21.4% 30.3% 0.7:1
Independents 57.3% 34.3% 1.7:1

The Libertarian share of conversions in 2021 was more than two-and-a-half times larger than their share of all registered voters. The ranks of independent voters swelled better than half-again times than their electorate share. In contrast, both the Democrats and Republicans got a smaller share of the conversions than their overall share of voters. The flight away from the establishment parties is not abating. If anything, it's speeding up.

It’s an intriguing contrast. As partisan rancor between the two establishment parties has steadily ratcheted up over the past few decades, the North Carolina electorate's collective enthusiasm for those parties has consistently declined.

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  • Brad Hessel
    published this page in News 2022-02-16 12:59:56 -0500
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