The News & Observer has a very good article about voter trends in North Carolina. The reporter looks beyond just the registration numbers to examine trends in past elections and what to look for in 2018. He looks at money, enthusiasm and off-year turnout.
Democratic registration is falling pretty dramatically, Republican registration is rising slightly and Unaffiliated voters make up far more than half of new registrations. Democratic registration has been falling for more than forty years and will continue to fall for another decade or so. Most the drop comes from Jessiecrats dying off in rural counties. For years, these older white Democrats voted Republican in general elections but maintained their Democratic registration so they could vote in Democratic primaries in local elections like sheriff and county commissioner. As they pass away, Democratic registration will continue to drop, probably leveling off somewhere around 35% of registered voters.
For about fifteen years, Republican registration has held steady in the state, making up a little more than 30% of registered voters. From 1972 till the early 2000s, GOP registration grew as North Carolina shifted from a one-party state. The growth was both from Democrats who had been voting Republican changing registration and newcomers who had been historically Republican moving to the state. That growth has stopped.
The big change is the surge in unaffiliated voters who will probably surpass Republicans in the next year or so in registration numbers. They’ve grown from less than 10% of registered voters two decades ago to more than 30% today. They are the voters who will determine elections in the state.
We’ve reached a point in North Carolina where almost all swing voters are unaffiliated but not all unaffiliateds are swing voters. Many people who register unaffiliated vote reliably with one party or the other. In rural areas, unaffiliated voters tend to side with Republicans, but most younger unaffiliated voters support Democrats. Registration maybe helpful in identifying base voters for each party, but demographics will be a better predictor of unaffiliated voters’ preference and behavior.
As North Carolina grows and changes, elections will continue to be unpredictable. National trends and moods will have a greater impact here than in other states. In 2018, the public attitude toward Trump and the GOP Congress will probably drive turnout in the state more than anything else. The party with the more energized base is likely to do well next November.