This article was originally posted at www.restorenc.org. The author, Nazneen Ahmed, is a political communications professional in Raleigh, NC, and the communications coordinator for 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.
NC is picking up voter registration in exactly the demographics that should be resulting in MORE registered Democrats – not less. The large number of UNA voters is not because new voters are moving to NC and registering as UNA – it’s largely existing voters who are changing their party registration. And it’s mostly voters formerly registered as Democrats who over the last 5 years have changed their registration.
Other articles that address this issue talk about the “what” – but not on the “how” and the “why”. This loss of voters – in the last 5 years especially – is the direct result of the failure of the Democratic Party from the top down to build the Party and the brand. Fewer voters that see a reason to register or remain registered as Democrats makes is harder and more expensive to mobilize voters.
It also means that rank and file voters have less say in how their party is operated – and gives too much control of the Party by paid operatives funded by big money donors who don’t have the same interests as rank and file voters. Do you really think that corporate lawyers and big bankers and CEOs who write the checks to candidates have the same interests as rural folks, state employees (including teachers), and of middle class workers in private businesses?
Now you know why so many professional political operatives have been working hard to kill party building – that means more money in their pockets no matter whether their candidates win or lose.
“Middle of the road” and “common sense” are what is killing party building for the Democratic Party. They are code for DLC/ThirdWay/BlueDog/Republican-Lite/DINO Democratic ways of doing things. Obama won NC in 2008 because the majority of voters were more closely aligned to the Democratic Party and our candidates. But even before that election took place, Obama’s campaign team was busy trying to kill the very grassroots party-building 50 state strategy that began under DNC Chair Howard Dean that enabled Obama to win here in NC. And even though there is nothing in the DNC By-Laws or the NCDP Plan of Organization to allow either the President or the NC Governor (if they are a Democrat) to control the political party, DNC at the national level and SEC members on the state level voted for National and State Party Chairs who were tasked with destroying the very partybuilding activities that led to the 2006 and 2008 victories. It’s not about victory – but about control! They did not want rank and file Dems to control their own party (and the money that could be used to pay consultants) through leaders elected by the rank and file.
That is one of the big reasons why Dems lost so bad in 2010 and 2012. It’s why SEC members who elect state party officers voted for David Parker in 2011 – which of course is why political consultants tried to force him out in 2012. It’s also why Randy Voller won in 2013 – and why political consultants have been dogging his heals every since the won that race. It’s all about money – not about doing what’s best for our state and nation. Luckily the consultants don’t run everything – and soon enough the big money crowd will have to form their own party in order to be able to pull any strings at all. Rank and file Main Street Democrats are tired of being pushed around by Republicans and by corporate Dems alike – something can and will give. We’ll take our party back from the Corporate Dems and then we’ll take our state and nation back from the Republicans and banksters alike! And then more voters will see that it makes more sense for them to be registered as Democrats to have a say in how our elected public leaders fix the massive problem of economic inequality!