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Rise Of The Unaffiliated Voter: Why North Carolinians Are Turning Away From Strict Party Labels

Jessica Murrell Berryman, 36, of Durham was a registered Democrat until she switched to unaffiliated last December.
Jessica Murrell Berryman, 36, of Durham was a registered Democrat until she switched to unaffiliated last December.

Last month, I took a look at formerly registered Republicans who recently left the GOP. The GOP defections were noteworthy because they had jumped quite a bit since the November 2020 presidential election, and especially after the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump supporters intent on overturning Democrat Joe Biden's electoral victory.

"From Election Day through the end of March, there was about 26,000 registered Republicans that switched away from the party," reports WUNC's Jason deBruyn, our resident data guru.

From November 2016 through March 2017, about 6,000 Republicans switched affiliations. That number jumped to more than 26,000 from November 2020 through this past March.

That's more than four times as many who left the party in the same period, as compared with four years ago.

As attention-grabbing as that spike in GOP defections has been, data from the State Board of Elections show a steady departure of registered voters from the Democratic Party over an even longer period, going back to 2008 – the year Barack Obama ran and became the nation's first Black president.

"The Democrats are down 250,000, Republicans are up about 250,000, and yet registered Unaffiliated is up a whopping million registered voters," reports deBruyn. "You're really seeing a shift away from the parties to Unaffiliated."

To find out just who some of these former Democrats are, I perused registration lists and knocked on some doors. Eventually, I found Ana Dubois, a 37-year-old schoolteacher and mother of three, her toddler son playing on the stoop of their Durham home.

"The more I learned, the more I read, the more I realized, that although I do still align myself somewhat as a Democrat I just wanted to not necessarily be affiliated to a specific party," said Dubois.

She talked about moving to the United States from Brazil as a child and growing up in a left-leaning household.

"I just became a citizen in 2011, and that year I went ahead and registered to vote. I registered Democrat, voted for Obama," she explains.

But even going back to 2016, when she supported Bernie Sanders, Dubois started to question her allegiance to the mainstream Democratic label as she embraced more progressive ideas, like universal health care coverage through Medicare for All.

After the 2020 election, Dubois and her husband switched from Democrat to Unaffiliated – but that doesn't mean she won't ever vote for a moderate Democratic candidate like Joe Biden again, as she did in last year's general election.

"I was not going waste my vote," she says. "I was not going to risk it."

According to Mac McCorkle, disgruntled progressive voters departing the Democratic Party may be more the exception than the rule in North Carolina. McCorkle is a former Democratic political consultant and teaches at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy.

He says North Carolina's Democratic Party is still undergoing a realignment that can be traced back to FDR's New Deal and then the Civil Rights era – losing older, conservative white voters over a host of issues.

"A mix of race, taxes, welfare state, big government, and cultural liberalism," McCorkle says.

Going into the 2022 mid-terms, when North Carolina will have a U.S. Senate seat up for grabs since Republican Richard Burr is retiring after three terms, McCorkle says history suggests the GOP should feel a little more comfortable headed into that contest: "Simply because the party in power, enough voters usually swing against that."

Longtime Republican political consultant Paul Shumaker says it all comes down to market share. And he says the North Carolina Democratic Party's market share has dwindled – from a 12-point advantage over Republicans in 2014, to just a 6.5-point advantage in 2020.

But Shumaker says it's North Carolina's bloc of registered Unaffiliated voters that deserves the most attention – a bloc that has surpassed registered Republicans already.

"I actually believe next year will be the first time in the history of this state that Unaffiliated will outnumber Democrats and Republicans by the November 2022 mid-term elections," Shumaker says. "It means that both parties are going to have to form an issue coalition with Unaffiliated voters in order to win their support."

Shumaker says that means Unaffiliated voters will combine some baseline party platform ideas form Democrats and Republicans.

"Unaffiliated voters, they look at being in control of their own lives and making their own choices, their own decisions, and they're willing, for example, to accept higher taxes if they think it might meet a greater good," he says.

Jessica Murrell Berryman has been politically conscious and civically engaged since grade school – something the longtime Durham resident, wife, and mother of three learned from her grandfather.

"My grandaddy Robert, in Jones County, in Trenton, North Carolina, [was] really involved. He was a PTA president," she explains. "I was a PTA president over at Pearsontown when my children were there. But just how important it was to be able to have a voice, because it's hard to have a voice when you're a Black family in Jones County. It's a very small, rural place."

Berryman registered as a Democrat while still in high school.

But over the years, she has felt increasingly alienated from the mainstream Democratic Party as gentrification and a short supply of good quality affordable housing have left segments of the Durham community behind.

"Where are people going to go?" she wonders. "Apple's coming. Are we preparing individuals for workforce development?"

In 2012, when she was still a registered Democrat and a small business owner, Berryman voted for Republican Pat McCrory in the North Carolina governor's race. She re-registered Unaffiliated in December.

Shumaker says it's independent voters like Berryman that make North Carolina such a highly competitive state.

 Ana Dubois, 37, Durham resident, mother of three – she and her husband re-registered from Democrat to Unaffiliated in December (2020)
Rusty Jacobs /
Ana Dubois, 37, Durham resident, mother of three – she and her husband re-registered from Democrat to Unaffiliated in December (2020)

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

Rusty Jacobs is a politics reporter for WUNC. Rusty previously worked at WUNC as a reporter and substitute host from 2001 until 2007 and now returns after a nine-year absence during which he went to law school at Carolina and then worked as an Assistant District Attorney in Wake County.