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Republican, white voter registrations surge in NC

Tricia Cotham announcing her switch to Republican at a press conference in Raleigh on April 5, 2023.
Steve Harrison
Tricia Cotham announcing her switch to Republican at a press conference in Raleigh on April 5, 2023.

A version of this news analysis originally appeared in the Inside Politics newsletter, out Fridays. Sign up here to get it first to your inbox.

With five months until Election Day, North Carolina Republicans appear to have momentum, at least when it comes to how people identify themselves when they register to vote.

The North Carolina Board of Elections recently updated voter registrations for all 100 counties. The database previously had been locked from March to mid-May because the GOP had a runoff, and no new registrants were supposed to have been added.

Inside Politics has scrutinized the new numbers and how they have changed from 2020 to 2024, as well as the historical change in registration in between previous four-year election cycles.

One takeaway: It looks like the state has become more conservative since 2020.

This newsletter will not make a prediction as to whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump will win North Carolina. But, if registration trends are any indication, it appears Biden could underperform in the president’s nationwide popular vote total by as much or more than he did in 2020.

(Here is what I mean: Four years ago, Biden lost North Carolina by 1.3 percentage points, even though he won the national popular vote by 4.5 percentage points. I consider that lagging the national average by 5.8 points.)

Let’s get to the numbers. Here is the change in registration by party from June 2020 to June 2024:

  • Democrats: -126,000 (2.4 million total)
  • Republicans: +156,000 (2.25 million total)
  • Unaffiliated: +450,000 (2.77 million total)

At first glance, this trend looks terrible for Democrats.
But it’s not uncommon for the Democrats to have lost registered voters and still come close in presidential elections and to win Council of State races.

This is, in part, because many of the people who have left the party are probably older, conservative voters who became Democrats when they were young. They have voted for Republicans for a while. Democrats have also won over enough unaffiliated voters to make up for their losses. (And there’s plenty of debate over how independent most unaffiliated voters actually are, or whether they usually vote with one party or another.)

Now let’s go back in history. I’m going to shift the time frame from August to August, because North Carolina’s primary was held later in past elections.

Here is what the change looked like from August 2016 to August 2020:

  • Democrats: -123,000 (2.54 million total)
  • Republicans: +91,600 (2.11 million total)
  • Unaffiliated: +408,5000 (2.35 million total)

August 2012 to August 2016:

  • Democrats: -97,000 (2.66 million)
  • Republicans: +26,300 (2.02 million)
  • Unaffiliated: +328,000 (1.95 million)

August 2008 to August 2012:

  • Democrats: +76,800 (2.76 million)
  • Republicans: +56,000 (1.99 million)
  • Unaffiliated: +320,000 (1.62 million)

May 2004 to August 2008:

  • Democrats: +277,600 (2.68 million total)
  • Republicans: +190,000 (1.94 million total)
  • Unaffiliated: +387,500 (1.29 million total)

Here are a few thoughts.
First, it’s not inevitable that Democrats lose registrations. During the Obama years, voters were excited to be Democrats and registrations increased. Also, losing 126,000 registrations over the last four years — after losing 121,000 in the previous four years — is not sustainable. In one of the nation’s fastest-growing states, the state Democratic Party needs voters to like it enough that they register as Democrats.

Look at it another way: In August 2012, there were 1.99 million registered Republicans and 2.76 million Democrats in the state. Now, there are 2.25 million Republicans and 2.4 million Democrats, drawing close to parity in just a bit more than a decade.

Republicans are having a good cycle, adding 156,000 new registered voters. If you have declared yourself a Republican since 2020 after four years of Trump, it’s safe to say you are committed to the GOP. Considering Trump won North Carolina by 75,000 votes in 2020, that can be a difference maker.

Unaffiliated voters continue to be the Democratic Party’s big hope. The belief is that young voters don’t want to be identified with either party, even if they are progressive. With 450,000 new unaffiliated voters, that’s a large pool for the Democrats to draw voters from and offset GOP gains.

A county-by-county look

Here is some more interesting information about registrations:

Of the state’s 100 counties, there are nine with more registered Democrats today than four years ago: Alamance, Brunswick, Cabarrus, Chatham, Henderson, Johnston, Mitchell, Union and Wake.

(Mitchell County, in the mountains, has one more registered Democrat than it did in 2020.)

Mecklenburg County — the county with the most registered Democrats — has 2,500 fewer registered Democrats than it did in 2020. That’s a .07% drop. Mecklenburg Democrats will probably surpass their 2020 registrations by the end of summer as voter drivers ramp up.

On the other side, many counties — mostly rural ones — have seen massive declines in Democratic registrations.

Twenty-nine counties have seen their Democratic registrations fall by more than 15%. Robeson County is the largest by absolute numbers, where Democratic registration has fallen by nearly 8,600 people, or 20%. Robeson used to be one of the state’s bluest counties.

On the Republican side, 93 of 100 counties have more registered Republicans than four years ago. The seven that dropped: Durham, Forsyth, Guilford, Mecklenburg, Orange, Wake and Watauga.

White and Black registrations

Now let’s look at registrations by race and ethnicity.

From June 2020 to June 2024, the number of registered voters who self-identify as Black dropped by nearly 2,700.

The number of voters who self-identify as white increased by nearly 204,000. A good chunk of those new white registrants are probably Hispanic, whose registrants increased by 79,000 over the last four years. (The registration form allows people to identify as Hispanic regardless of their race, meaning race and Hispanic ethnicity are separate, overlapping categories.)

Overall, that’s good news for Republicans, since Black voters are the most reliable Democratic group and the GOP wins a majority of the white vote.

The problem with analyzing all of this is that an increasing number of voters aren’t picking any race or ethnicity when registering to vote.

There are 38,100 multiracial voters. And nearly 920,000 voters — 12% of the voting pool — chose “undesignated” or “other.”

Democrats like to focus on the state becoming more diverse, with more voters of color.

And that’s true: In 2012, 71% of the state’s registered voters were white. That’s now fallen to 65%.

But Black voters have also seen their share shrink, as well, from 22.5% in 2012 to just under 20% today.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.