The conventional wisdom about North Carolina politics from 20 years ago is now about as useful as a rotary telephone. Tar Heel politics has been transformed in recent decades with breathtaking speed because of several factors: explosive population growth, urbanization and the rise of the unaffiliated voter.
That was some of the wisdom shared by two veteran Tar Heel political consultants, Paul Shumaker, a Republican, and Morgan Jackson, a Democrat, when they appeared last week at a lunchtime panel sponsored by the North Carolina FreeEnterprise Foundation, a business-financed group that provides nonpartisan political research.
Among their more interesting points:
Rural vote now GOP: For decades, the Democratic formula for winning elections in North Carolina was simple, Jackson said. Democrats would win wide margins in the Triangle and Eastern North Carolina, battle the Republicans even in the Triad and try to limit the losses everywhere else in the Piedmont and the west, including Charlotte. But that has been turned upside down. The new Democratic strategy is to pile up the votes in the urban areas, including Charlotte, and try to hold down the Republican vote in the rural areas. Today, 60 percent of the registered voters are in the largest 20 counties.
Loss of business leadership: The state has lost its historical moorings. A huge number of voters have only recently moved into the state. A few key influential business leaders such as Duke Energy’s Bill Lee, CP&L’s Sherwood Smith and Wachovia’s John Medlin no longer guide the state, while many of the new business leaders are from elsewhere and are more disengaged from the political process. Those newcomers tend to pay more attention to presidential elections and are less plugged into local politics.
Rise of the independents: The fastest-growing group of voters is unaffiliated voters. They already outnumber Republicans in 35 counties, outnumber Democrats in 12 counties and outnumber both parties in three counties. If current trends continue, unaffiliateds will surpass the number of registered Republican voters in a majority of North Carolina counties by 2016.
Since 2010, the number of registered Democratic voters in the state has dropped by 4,711; the number of Libertarians has grown by 13,216; the number of Republicans has grown by 33,752, and the number of unaffiliated voters has grown by 242,818.
By far the biggest county for the growth of unaffiliated votes was Wake County. As both the Republican and Democratic parties become more polarized, unaffiliated voters are finding less to like with either party and are often turned off by the ideological stridency of the nominees produced by the parties. General elections are increasingly about trying to attract unaffiliated voters, who truly can swing in either direction. “It’s going to make the two parties stronger and more responsive in the end,” Shumaker said.
Democrats are nationalizing: The 2008 election and the election of President Barack Obama helped nationalize the state Democratic Party, helping squeeze out the more conservative elements of the old state Democratic Party.
Voters are unhappy: Voter patience is extremely thin. We may be in for a period of one-term governors. People are unhappy and are voting for change, regardless of the party affiliation of the governor.
Voter disconnect: With the huge population growth – only Texas had bigger influx than North Carolina over the last decade – and with large changes in legislative and congressional districts, there has been a loss of connection between citizens and their lawmakers.
“The state senator you may have gone to church with for 30 years is no longer there,” Jackson said. “He may now live a couple of counties away now. You may never have met him.”