Note: This post was originally posted on Restore NC: http://www.restorenc.org/news/how-independent-voters-are-changing-game-2014
As we head into 2014 and gear up for the congressional midterm elections, start readying yourself for the barrage of candidate ads, rebuttal ads, debates, interviews, op-eds, and race analyses that will inevitably be hitting every news medium until November. But if you live in North Carolina, then you’re aware that our state has been particularly in tune with its current political situation for the past year and a half. Since the 2012 elections and the Republican takeover of our state government, the state has consistently featured in the national political spotlight over issues including public education, same-sex marriage, abortion rights, unemployment and health care. Almost everything written or said in the past few months has evoked the same upcoming timeline: the November 2014 elections. The elections this year will serve as more than just a mere vote; after months of partisan disputes and public outrage, these ballots will be a strict referendum on the slate of government decisions and laws that have come to pass since 2012. If you’re a Republican in NC, you probably land on the right side of that partisan divide (though to be fair, the Tea Party has done its fair share share of damage to cohesiveness of the GOP). If you’re a Democrat in NC, you definitely know that you stand on the left. However, counting Republican and Democratic voters only serves as a fraction of the total number of registered voters in NC and leaves out one of the most potentially powerful group of voters: the independents.
A recent study by Democracy NC indicates that voters are increasingly trending towards not joining a party when they register to vote in the state. As of December 2013, unaffiliated voters now make up 26% of the electorate, over a quarter of all registered voters. In the past five years, the number of nonpartisan voters in North Carolina has increased by 306,533 voters, a 22% increase that stands in sharp contrast with the decreased registration of Democratic (-3.6%) and Republican voters (-0.6%). In nearly half of all counties, unaffiliated voters outnumber registered Democrats or Republicans.
What exactly does that mean for the upcoming elections, and the state of NC party politics in general? A few things:
1. Potentially lower turnout
Historically, voter turnout for elections tend to be lower in years without presidential election. Off-year elections tend to have less publicity and less high-profile candidates, both of which lead to lower voter turnout. Of those who do show up to vote, voters registered with a party tend to make up the greatest proportion of people who turn up to vote during midterm elections. As crucial as the 2014 election may be for NC politics, it’s more than likely that it will see a much lower turnout rate than 2012, which could make it more difficult for either party to accomplish their election goals.
2. Bad news for Democrats and Republicans:
Voters registered for either party automatically are pulled into a party’s base, and party leaders can use them for mobilization and grassroots efforts before election day. Independent voters in the state are primarily made of up a younger demographic, with 38% of all voters aged 18-25 choosing to remain unaffiliated when they register to vote. According to Democracy NC president Bob Hall, young voters “are refusing to embrace or perhaps even understand a party’s philosophy.” Without a growing number of young party members, both parties are finding themselves with a smaller party base. Most registered independents do tend to lean towards one party over another, but with a diminished core group of supporters, both parties will have trouble getting out the vote in 2014 or retaining or winning a majority in the legislature.
3. A more moderate electorate
While it’s no secret that both the Democratic and Republican parties in NC have been moving more towards the extreme left and right, a growing number of voters, particularly independents, are moving towards the center of the political spectrum. To be fair, North Carolina has long been a state of moderate voters, which is another reason why the past two years have been particularly jarring for state politics. While independent voters do tend to have partisan tendencies, it’s some of the more extreme rhetoric by both parties that tends to be off putting to independents. Parties generally find themselves moving towards more moderate platforms closer to the election, but this year, it’s imperative for both parties that they modify their agenda to win over independents. As we head towards November, be on the look out for media messages from state parties and candidates that are focused on NC values and “common sense” legislation, both keywords in strategies to get the vote of nonpartisan voters.
It’s also important to note that along with a decrease in registered partisan voters, the state is also witnessing a decrease in white voters. The make-up of voter demographics is shifting at a rapid pace. The growing population influx in NC is resulting in more African-American, Latino, and female voters. And guess what? Many of them are independents.