How Independent Voters are Changing the Game in 2014

Note: This post was originally posted on Restore NC:

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.


Independents who vote for Republicans

If there's one thing we've learned, it's that there are no moderate Republicans any more. And since there are no effective third parties to choose from, it's pretty much "Vote for Democrats" or "Vote for Crazy."

Decisive Independents

Independents can be decisive in an election if they can move together decisively. By this chart, it looks like from 1993 to 2013, Democrats are down by about 20%, Independents are up by about 20%, and Republicans are holding steady as a percentage of the registered voting public.

Neither the Democrats or Republicans hold over half of the registered voters alone. Independents can decide elections. But the redistricting maps make the individual districts lean pretty heavily to the left, or to the right. More often to the right.

That means in the popular vote in your geographic community you could win and still lose an election in the district, so you have to aim to win by heavy margins. And that means there isn't a lot of wiggle room to wait until an election is near to have your vote courted, it means getting organized and acting together and doing it now.

Dems more conservative - surely you jest....

I'd disagree with this one statement:

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.

The _only_ issue of significance that the Democratic Party has leaned more left on in the past couple of decades has been LGBT rights and marriage.

On a host of other issues, the party has been centrist or center right. The key policy of Obama's second administration - healthcare reform - is a plan that was proposed by the conservative Heritage Foundation and is similar to a proposal supported by Richard Nixon in the 1960s and 70s when the "hard right" wing of the Republican party opposed any change at all.

Progressives on the left have called for fairer tax reform and eliminating tax loopholes for corporations, returning the tax code to what it was during the FDR-Truman-Eisenhower years. Progressives have called for strengthening social security and the party has waffled on that.

Most significantly, the Democratic party has supported, in any serious way, meaningful legal reforms that would put the brakes on reckless financial speculation by the banking industry that would prevent a future economic crisis - reforms that would be a return to FDR-era financial industry regulations that were eliminated during the Clinton years.

This is the most telling quote:

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.

The Democratic party shifted center-right during the Clinton administration and remains there. I think if there was some digging among these independents, you'd find many that are to the left of the current Democratic party. It's not in tune with their values.

I'm pushing fifty and changed my registration from Democratic to Unaffiliated during Obama's first term. I lost patience with a party that I saw - and still see - as still "stuck" in the Clinton years and unable to move into the next century.

It's a testament to the noise machine of the Tea Bagger right in this country that the myth of a Democratic party leaning more left is tossed out with so little thought.

No, the current Democratic party isn't made up of a bunch of "socialists" - that's just a FoxNews talking point.

I hear what you're saying,

and I do suspect that many Democrats left the Party because it was too moderate/conservative. And because it was embarrassingly prone to unethical behavior.

But assuming a big chunk of those disaffected Dems are more Left-leaning might be just as wrong as assuming they're Right-leaning. What we really need (and I've been wondering about this for some time) is some solid research on the "why" they left the Party. And it doesn't have to be a waste of Party resources, either. Develop a list of those who switched from D to U, and start making some phone calls. Not to try to talk them back per se, but mainly to find out why they switched. If the NCDP had any damned sense, they would have already done this, or at least started the process.

This would be ...

... a good research project for Public Policy Polling over at Elon.

I agree there needs to be some research on this.

But, really, I'm hard-pressed to think of any issue beyond LGBT rights where the mainstream Democratic party has grown more liberal since the Clinton administration.

Many Dems are staying in the Party...

...and calling for serious reforms.

And when we try and do this - to build the Democratic Party brand, we are told by people with VERY close ties to the consultants and the big money donors not to do this - that UNA voters are important.

It's almost starting to look like a self-fulfilling prophecy. That in order to create more demand for your product (paid political consulting to reach more UNA voters) you must do what is needed to change the Democratic Party into a group that won't have as many unpaid volunteers to do the work that you can later charge high fees to perform. Drive out and away so many Dems and turn them into UNA voters - and you create more demand for your services!

But if you want to reach out to the voters who switched from D to U - how do you get them to come back again? What do you tell them is the difference between R and D, and the benefit of being a D rather than UNA? Part of the problem is that some folks still want the Democratic Party to be too moderate/conservative, and that there are people who big money donors will hire who are prone to unethical behavior.

You first have to drive the "money changers" out of the temple. David Parker tried to do that, but he got sidetracked by the convention in Charlotte and the consultant-led coup to replace him. Randy Voller is doing this right now. But the money changers (and their friends) don't want him to succeed. Why do you think they are so busy creating all these PACs and 501(c)3/4 groups to suck money away from the Party?

And I would agree that the most progressive issue the Dems have taken up lately is gay marriage. Unfortunately it's an issue that affects such a small % of people (4% of the population) in comparison to the much larger issue of economic inequality that scares the bejeusus out of the big money donors and their front-men/women. That's why some of them push so hard for the Democratic Party to be economic moderates yet are socially progressive on gay rights.

I am not saying that gay rights and gay marriage and other LGBT issues aren't important. They are. But economic inequality is much more important because it's dragging the whole country down. When we have so many people living in poverty and having food security issues and can't get Medicaid or Medicare - that's a much bigger issue than whether or not you can get married. And I think that the Democratic Party will win those UNA voters back when they start talking about real bread and butter issues that affect a larger number of people who live on Main Street. Not Wall Street or even Christopher Street (a street in gay-friendly Greenwich Village in NYC).

Chris Telesca
Wake County Verified Voting

Before you can get them to come back,

you need to know why they left in the first place. Everybody has their own theory, but many of those theories are based on their own perceptions. That's why we need some hard data. My theory is pretty simple: many Dems grew tired of having Jim Black/Meg Scott Phipps/Mike Easley/etc. thrown in their face, so they dropped the D so they could say, "I'm not a Democrat, so shut the hell up."

But again, that's just a theory.

So we call them on the phone, ask for a brief explanation of why they left, and then thank them for their time. No coaxing, no arguing, no guilt trips, nothing. Just a thank you. I have another theory, in which half of them are so impressed by being asked, that they decide to come back. Or they vote more heavily for Democrats when the time comes to vote. And that theory is based on human nature, and has nothing to do with politics.

this sort of work is basic to party building.

Just getting people to vote is essentially meaningless. I prefer more meaningful participation.

Once elected, all our public officials should really worry about doing whatever needs to be done to keep the public satisfied. With approval ratings at all time lows, why do you think most politicians don't give a damn about what the public thinks except for election time? That's because they know that big dollars get them through the elections, and not public approval. We need to change that.

I don't want them to just come back and register as Dems or vote for our candidates - these people need to be involved from the grassroots up in deciding what we want our candidates to do once they get elected!

Chris Telesca
Wake County Verified Voting

My information on the % of LGBT Americans came from...


The study shows that an estimated .3% of Americans are transgender. Additionally, the Williams study shows 3.5% of American adults are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, including 1.8% of American adults who are bisexual. 0.3% + 3.5% equals 3.8%.

Chris Telesca
Wake County Verified Voting

Future data

It'll be interesting to see how stable that data is in the future, especially as more people are more comfortable identifying themselves. I know when I was in the closest there was no study, no matter how secretive they promised to be, that could have broken through, and when you multiply that systematically across the entire nation, it builds up.

While we saw skyrocketing levels of support for LGBT equality last year, reports even now, but especially before that time have to be seen with that context. I think the Williams Institute seems to have done about as a good of a job reporting as you can, but drawing on data from the mid-2000s is back around when gay bashing amendments had recently been all the rage and a surefire way to turnout voters.

The Williams Institute report you refer to even reports that 11% of the population or 25.6 million Americans admit to same sex attractions (how many don't?) but that doesn't count towards LGBT because they aren't using the label.

I think there's fraying on both edges. There are people who avoid the LGBT label because of the stigma, people who stay in the closet on the one side. And there are very open people who are very involved in the pro-equality movement who are moving away from accepting labels.

Some studies say as high as 20%:

Modern studies indicate that the prevalence of homosexuality is approximately 2% to 13% of the population. A 2006 study indicated that 20% of the population indicated some sort of homosexual feelings, although very few of them identified themselves as homosexual (McConaghy et., al 2006).

I was glad to see the census start measuring things, but they used a pretty limited method too, only measuring same-sex married couples. And so many states have added marriage equality since then, and that obviously doesn't measure unmarried LGBTs. Hopefully the 2020 census will do a better job and generally we'll get even better data as acceptance continues to grow.

2014! A Real Opportunity for Righting the Ship

As an active member of the Democratic Party, I am convinced that the 2014 Mid-Term Elections will play a major role in reshaping the political future of North Carolina. With more than 20 years in the drivers seat in Congress, the 3rd District Representative has done little to brighten the future for those people in the district, and has voted on numerous occasions to hurt the people he swore to protect and defend. His most recent act, to the detriment of his constituents, was to side with the Tea Party to shut down the Government. That act cost the taxpayers a cool $29 Billion.

Dedicated Democrats, most of whom believe that conducting the "people's business" is far more important than political gamesmanship are the only true voices of Moderation left in Washington today. Sending the same ole same oles back to Washington to collect a paycheck and do nothing but hurt us is totally ridiculous.

In the 3rd District we have a clear choice for both the Primary and General Elections if we really want to right the ship. That choice is Marshall Adame. Marshall's opponent in the Democratic Primary in May is a former Tea Party member with little to no tangible experience, and when compared to the Mr. Adame's background, he seems woefully inadequate to represent the party effectively. Additionally how can we as rational Democrats embrace a candidate that changes parties one day and then ask these same rational Democrats the very next day to allow this person to lead the party.

While the statistics in this post are very disturbing to me as a Democrat, I am not surprised by them. In the 3rd District (comprised of all or part of 22 counties) the lack of organization is astounding. Of those 22 counties less than half are organized. Is it any wonder the Democratic Congressional Candidate Committee has written off the 3rd District for the last 20 years! But I believe that 2014 is our time in the 3rd District.

Marshall Adame is the clear choice to lead the Democratic party in 3rd District. We need to cease the opportunity. If you don't know him....Google "Marshall Adame" or visit his campaign website at and read his Bio. I'm confident you will be impressed.