Staying purple - study shows why N.C. may keep swinging

Jan. 06, 2014 @ 04:30 PM

If you want to know why North Carolina might remain a swing state in national politics and presidential elections in coming years, look no further than a recent report on trends with state voters.

The political group Democracy North Carolina last week released a detailed look at changes in registered voters, concentrating on shifts since the 2008 presidential election. One trend that stands out is the continued rise of unaffiliated voters as the fastest-growing block in the state.
“Statewide, unaffiliated voters are now 26 percent of all voters, up from 8 percent in 1993,” reports the Durham-based organization.
Of the 6.47 million registered voters in North Carolina in early November, 1.7 million were unaffiliated. And while unaffiliated voters grew in the state from 1.4 million in November 2008, total numbers of registered Republicans and Democrats in North Carolina slipped during the five-year period.
Registered Democrats declined from 2.87 million to 2.76 million, while registered Republicans edged back from 2 million in November 2008 to 1.99 million this past November.
During the five-year period, in every county except Hoke, a majority of new voters have signed up not as Democrats or Republicans, but unaffiliated, according to Democracy North Carolina.
“And that’s about the only feature the counties seem to have in common,” the group reports.
A local political science professor said the continued rise of unaffiliated voters may keep North Carolina a so-called purple state for the presidential election in 2016 and beyond.
“When you look at the percentage gains unaffiliated voters have had in the last five years, it’s really stunning,” said Matthew DeSantis, professor of political science at Guilford Technical Community College. “Those are the voters that candidates at the national level are going to focus on because they are swing voters. Neither political party is going to be able to take North Carolina for granted.”
In 2008, President Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential nominee to carry North Carolina since 1976 when he narrowly edged GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in the Tarheel State. But in 2012, North Carolina was one of two states nationally — along with Indiana — that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney wrestled back from Obama. 
This year, North Carolina promises to receive national political attention as first-term Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of Greensboro tries to hold her seat against a still-to-be-determined Republican challenger. The daily newspaper serving Capitol Hill, Roll Call, reported last month that the North Carolina Senate race is lining up to be one of the most expensive campaigns in the nation during 2014.
While North Carolina may have the overall look of a swing purple state, within its border there are distinct differences among many counties.
North Carolina is breaking into a state with deep Democratic blue pockets, such as Charlotte and the Research Triangle around Durham and Raleigh, and strong Republican red pockets in more rural and bedroom communities, such as Randolph and Davidson counties.
“It’s not as if there is the balance between the two parties county by county. There’s actually wide discrepancies when you start looking at the percentage breakdown (within certain counties),” DeSantis told The High Point Enterprise.
Indeed, the Democracy North Carolina report found that in 44 of the 100 counties, unaffiliated voters outnumber either Democrats or Republicans in counties that lean strongly toward one party or the other one. For example, in Randolph County, where no Democrat has been elected to partisan office in 30 years, unaffiliated voters now outnumber registered Democrats.

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