Those two Democrats, Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Barack Obama in 2008, were both running during a time of sweeping change in American politics. Carter took North Carolina by 11 points over President Gerald Ford, who couldn’t avoid getting his hands dirty after the Nixon impeachment scandal. Obama narrowly edged Sen. John McCain in N.C. by less than half a percent after eight years of domination at the hands of the George W. Bush administration.
President Donald Trump won North Carolina comfortably in 2016, by about 3.6 percent. While it’s not yet clear how his own impeachment scandal will play out, declining Democratic numbers could be a boon for him — as well as for every other down-ballot Republican in the state, from Congress to county commission.
Although Democrats still hold a substantial registration advantage over each of the other five registration categories, it’s shrinking — and fast.
As of Jan. 1, 2020, Democrats made up 36.6 percent of the state's 6.8 million registered voters, according to State Board of Elections registration data. Unaffiliated voters trailed by about four points, followed by Republicans at 30 percent.
Far behind those major party classifications, the Libertarian Party came in with about half a percent. The Constitution Party and the Green Party, both of which only gained formal ballot access in 2018, each claim less than one-twentieth of one percent.
Those numbers are shockingly different than the last time Trump ran. Republicans have gained almost 5 percentage points since then, but Democratic registrations are down almost 5 points over that same period. At the same time, unaffiliated voter registrations have grown by more than 23 percentage points.
In recent years, there have been more options for voters than just the two major parties. Libertarians have been on the ballot in North Carolina since 1976; even though they still number less than 40,000 statewide, since Jan. 1, 2016, they’ve grown more than 40 percent and in 2018 fielded candidates in nearly 70 of N.C.’s 100 counties.
That same year, the North Carolina General Assembly dramatically lowered ballot access requirements for political groups seeking formal recognition as a party. As of today, only two parties have availed themselves of that opportunity.
“People just feel the two establishment parties don’t represent them,” said Al Pisano, chairman of the Constitution Party of North Carolina and candidate for governor. “Most people think they are the left wing and right wing of the same bird. For the most part, it’s business as usual. We’re not looking to be a big-tent party. You’re not going to get that with the Libertarians or the Republicans.”
As the fastest growing minor party in N.C., the right-leaning Constitution Party now counts more than 2,700 registrants and is triple the size it was a year ago. It’s a similar story for the left-leaning Green Party’s 1,938 registered voters, but they’re twice as numerous as they were last year.
“We mostly want to spread the word that we are on the ballot now, so things like talking to reporters or putting a reminder on our website that you can register as a Green are important too,” said Camille McCarthy, co-chair of the WNC chapter of the North Carolina Green Party.
The trend against Democrats from Jan. 1, 2016, through today is even more pronounced in the western seven-county mountain region of North Carolina, where almost every county has lost 15 to 35 percent of its lefties.
Since 2016, Cherokee County has lost almost 35 percent of its registered Democrats. Clay and Graham counties posted similar stats, on the order of 27 percent declines. The region’s largest county, Haywood, saw a 17 percent drop.
“I think the Democrats have allowed Republicans to brand us as being socialists,” said Myrna Campbell, chair of the Haywood County Democratic Party. “We haven’t been able to counter that, even though we are the party of social programs like Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance — all of those things are Democratic values, but we have allowed Republicans to cast them in a negative light.”
As an example, Campbell cited former President Barack Obama, who she said was no liberal, but was effectively branded that way.
“I think that’s why some Haywood Dems have moved away from the party, and sadly, they couldn’t support Hillary Clinton either,” she said.
Working to identify issues rather than candidates, Campbell said that there’s a disconnect between the Dems in her rural county, and the national party.
“Definitely since the 2016 election the one thing we have tried to focus on is that the Haywood party doesn’t necessarily align with the national party,” she said. “We have our own set of values. We do have a game plan in place to do voter registration, and the candidates we have recruited I feel are going to attract younger voters. We’re trying to get younger voters more engaged.”
Jackson County fared best in terms of fending off attrition, losing just 7.7 percent of its Dems since 2016.
“We’re primarily a service-oriented county,” said Frank Burrell, chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Party. “We’ve got the hospital, Western Carolina University and Southwest Community College here. They used to tend to be Democrat-oriented, but a lot of them have strayed over to unaffiliated.”
Burrell said that his party is active in doing everything it can to recruit and retain members.
“We keep our headquarters open year-round. We have a group called the Roundtable that meets twice a month. They do a lot of the legwork and planning. It takes a load off the executive committee,” he said. “We have some get-togethers, the Democratic women do dinners and things like that to keep the interest up, to keep us visible.”
Conversely, even though Republican growth since the last days of the Obama administration has been flat statewide, it’s anything but in the westernmost reaches of the state.
“I don’t think they’re working as hard,” said Ralph Slaughter, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party for most of the last 12 years. “Another reason they’re leaving is many who were Democrats are converting to unaffiliated. If you’re registered D, you have to vote Democrat in the Primary Election.”
Democratic shortcomings aside, Slaughter thinks that his own party’s talent pool is more attractive, ideologically speaking.
“I feel that we’ve had a better choice to offer people in terms of candidates — people who make sense to what voters are feeling,” he said. “I think voters overall are a lot smarter than they used to be.”
Republicans have seen positive growth in six of the seven western counties, and double-digit growth in five of them, led by Jackson County’s 14.3 percent. Haywood County now has 13.8 percent more registered Republicans than it did in 2016.
“When I took over we had a negative $5.97 in the bank, and now I think it’s up to around $20,000,” said Haywood County Republican Party Chairman Ken Henson. “We’ve worked hard. We’re not doing it just for show, we’re doing it to make a difference. We want conservatives to win. I think people are recognizing that we’ve stayed the course.”
Henson said his organization also benefits from good communication with state party officials.
“I hope people just wake up and realize we’ve got to make a difference,” he said.
The number of unaffiliated voters in those seven counties has grown as well — from a low of just half a point in Swain County, to a massive 22.1 point gain in Haywood.
Over that same timespan, the number of registered voters in those seven counties has remained nearly identical, increasing by only 1,100 or so from the 2016 total of 138,426.
All in all, there are now 18.5 percent fewer registered Democrats, 10.3 percent more registered Republicans and 13.1 percent more unaffiliated voters in those seven counties than there were at this time in 2016.
The voter registration totals reported by the NCSBE aren’t just good for cross-partisan bragging rights; those seven counties, not so coincidentally, happen to encompass parts of three state House districts, one full state Senate district, and the bulk of the real estate in North Carolina’s suddenly up-for-grabs 11th Congressional District.
A court-ordered redrawing of the 11th District has slashed Republican advantage there to somewhere in the neighborhood of five to seven points, but the decrease in Democrats could expand that margin, and it’s worth nothing that Buncombe County’s Democrats and Republicans both saw a very minor decrease in major party registrations from Jan. 1, 2016 through today.
That being said, it’s still going to be an uphill battle for any one of the five Democrats currently seeking the seat of Asheville Republican Rep. Mark Meadows — who announced Dec. 19 that he wouldn’t seek re-election — to actually flip it.
The same goes for N.C. Senate District 50, which is currently represented by five-term Franklin Republican Sen. Jim Davis. Davis announced his retirement this past fall, but quickly took advantage of the opportunity left by Meadows’ departure to seek that seat.
His hand-picked successor, Rep. Kevin Corbin, likely won’t need the advantage the 28-point swing in Republican voter registrations across the 50th District will bring him, but some Republican House candidates might.
Macon County Commissioner Karl Gillespie isn’t one of them. He’s running to take Corbin’s seat in the 120th House District, which has been solidly red for years now. Gillespie is unopposed, but Republicans still need turnout in his counties of Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Macon for the Republican congressional candidate’s contest, as well as President Trump’s.
In the 119th House District, though, the decline of the Democrats could end up determining who goes to Raleigh in 2021. Currently the district is represented by Waynesville Democrat Joe Sam Queen, and consists of Swain, Jackson, and part of Haywood County.
Queen’s uncontested in the March 3 Primary Election, but he’ll see one of two Republicans on the ballot in November — Jackson County Commissioner Ron Mau or perennial opponent and former Rep. Mike Clampitt of Swain County.
Clampitt lost to Queen by more than 1,400 votes in 2018, but beat him by 277 votes in 2016. Compared to that 2016 election, there are now 1,511 fewer Democrats and 1,041 more Republicans in Jackson and Swain counties alone.
“I see Republicans taking the seat whether it’s me or Mr. Mau,” said Clampitt. “Hopefully it will be me based on my experience and my years there. Experience is very important, especially in the western part of the state.”
Part of Haywood County also lies in that district, but with Haywood’s 31-point registration swing in favor of Republicans, it may not help Queen as much as in past elections.
“You’re seeing a mass exodus because the left has become so liberal and so agenda-driven towards socialism or communism and people realize that their paychecks can’t support that,” said Clampitt. “The plans [Democrats] are making are exorbitantly expensive and come at the expense of the middle class. I’m glad that reasonable people are beginning to wake up and see the true agenda of the left — the destruction of America as we’ve known it.”
The greater part of Haywood County belongs to the 118th House District, which also includes Madison and Yancey counties, where Dems saw similar defections — roughly 13 and 15 percent, respectively. Given Haywood’s downward Democratic track, first-term Republican Haywood County Commissioner Mark Pless may have just as easy a time winning that seat as Burnsville Republican Rep. Michele Presnell has had in her last four elections.
“I don’t think Michele won as a Republican with only Republican votes,” said Pless. “She had to reach across the aisle, she had to connect with Democrats as well as Republicans and I think she did a very good job of that. In Haywood County running for commissioner, I did not win because I had all Republican votes. I won because I was able to reach across the aisle and also appeal to others. I’m sure I didn’t get all the Republicans, either.”
The board Pless now sits on is governed by a four-to-one Republican majority, and if registration demographics don’t change, neither should that majority.
Haywood County Board of Commissioners Chairman Kevin Ensley is seeking re-election, as is Vice Chairman Brandon Rogers. Both are Republicans, and both will see opposition from two fellow Republicans in the Primary Election. No matter who emerges, they’ll be opposed by two Democrats.
Once the March 3 Primary Election is over, there are still exactly eight months until the Nov. 3 General Election — plenty of time for Republicans to capitalize on those favorable trends, should they continue.
There remains, however, one more group of citizens that could, should it so choose, have a major impact on races from county commission to Congress or even the White House itself.
They outnumber Democrats, and Republicans, and unaffiliated voters as well as the three other minor parties on N.C. ballots — they’re the estimated 3 million North Carolinians who aren’t registered to vote at all.
Registration for the March 3 Primary Election ends on Friday, Feb. 7. For more information, visit www.ncsbe.gov.