- While Republicans are slowly catching up with Democrats in total voter registration, the number of new unaffiliated voters in North Carolina far outstrips the number of new registrants of either party
- An examination of voter registration patterns in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, NC combined statistical area provides an example of diverging patterns between urban and rural areas
The progressive website Daily Kos sought to explain “why North Carolina is turning blue,” in 2015. Two years later, the equally progressive Huffpost claimed that North Carolina is ready to flip towards progressive Democrats. Do those claims match reality?
They do if you are a progressive comfortably ensconced in cities such as Raleigh, Durham, or Charlotte. However, the reality across North Carolina is more complex and, if anything, shows a slight trend favorable to Republicans.
In this two-part series, I will examine those statewide trends and then focus on one region, the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, NC combined statistical area, to provide more detail. In this part, I examine trends in voter registration. In part two, I will examine trends in voting patterns.
Many more unaffiliated voters, some more Republicans, and fewer Democrats
The Civitas Institute tracks voter registration in North Carolina on our Carolina Elections site. Looking back across the past decade, we can ascertain several patterns in the data.
First, there has been a marked shift towards unaffiliated status. While North Carolina has added 546,452 voters over the past decade, the bulk of those new voters (and those who have changed their party affiliation) have registered as unaffiliated. There were 764,314 more unaffiliated voters in May of 2019 than there were in May of 2009. During that time, the number of registered Republicans only increased by 60,318. (These numbers do not include the 2,951 people currently registered with the Green or Constitution parties.)
If the changes in voter registration are discouraging for Republicans, they are downright depressing for Democrats. Over the past decade, the Democratic Party has lost 310,245 voters statewide. Part of that decline represents Democrats who registered for Barack Obama’s 2008 election but who for whatever reason (moved, died, just did not bother to vote) have not voted in North Carolina since then and were cleaned from voter registration records during list maintenance earlier this year. However, the number of registered Democrats has been declining in North Carolina since November of 2012. Figure 1 shows changes in voter registration over time.
Despite those changes, Democrats are still a plurality of North Carolina registered voters (as of May 18) with 2,466,929 (37.22 percent) North Carolinians registered as Democrats compared to 1,998,459 (30.15 percent) Republicans and 2,126,058 (32.07 percent) unaffiliated voters. Figure 2 provides an idea of the relative strength of the parties in each of North Carolina’s counties, based on voter registration.
Source: Civitas’ Carolina Elections webpage.
If current patterns hold (but, of course, they rarely do) a plurality of North Carolina voters will be unaffiliated by the end of 2022. If current trends continue registered Republicans will likely not outnumber registered Democrats in North Carolina until sometime between 2031 and 2058 (depending on how you measure them). In any case, there is no indication from any of these trends in voter registration that North Carolina is turning blue.
Shifting patterns of voter registration: The Research Triangle region
Much has been made of the urban-rural divide in North Carolina politics. To investigate that in more detail, I looked at the Research Triangle region, based on the US Census Bureau’s Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, NC combined statistical area. The area includes what I refer to as three core counties (Durham, Orange, Wake) and eight peripheral counties (Chatham, Franklin, Granville, Harnett, Johnston, Lee, Person and Vance). See Figure 3 for a map of the area.
Information and map source: US Census Bureau.
The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill combined statistical area has gained 249,561 voters since May of 2009. Of the new voters, 5,651 registered as Democrat, 22,583 as Republican and 213,568 as unaffiliated voters.
When comparing voter registration trends, considerable variation exists between the core and peripheral counties. Of the 191,028 voter-increase in the three core counties (Durham, Orange, Wake), 26,046 are Democrats and only 104 are Republicans. Those three counties saw an increase of 159,028 unaffiliated voters. It was a different story in the peripheral counties. There was an increase of 56,719 unaffiliated voters and 22,479 Republican voters there. However, the number of Democrats in those eight counties declined by 20,395.
It is important to keep in mind that these are trends rather than absolute numbers. For example, while Granville County has had a gain of 1,042 Republicans and a loss of 2,555 Democrats since May of 2009, there are still only 8,990 registered Republicans compared to 17,144 registered Democrats in the county. See Table 1 for details.
The bottom line
Based on changes in voter registration over the past decade, North Carolina is not trending blue. Voter registration trends indicate that, if anything, North Carolina is moving away from Democrats ever so slowly. However, as seen in the examination of the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill NC Combined Statistical Area, there are strong local trends that can affect politics in those areas: if you live in Durham your political world really is blue and turning bluer.
The biggest change in voter registration by far however has been the rise of unaffiliated voters. If new unaffiliated voters disproportionately favor Democrats, then North Carolina could be turning blue despite the trends in voter registration. I will examine that possibility in part two.