For years, unaffiliated voters have been the fastest-growing category in North Carolina. But in large numbers, these unaffiliated voters are coming from a surprising place: the Democratic Party.

Voters switching from Democrat to unaffiliated make up the largest block of party-switchers since the beginning of 2018, according to a Longleaf Politics analysis of data from the State Board of Elections.

A total of 35,472 former Democrats left the party to become unaffiliated voters in 2018. That compares with 25,238 voters who switched from Republican to unaffiliated, though that type of party switching is a more common media storyline in the Trump era.

The same trend is holding true in 2019 as well. As of March 1, 5,169 Democrats had switched to unaffiliated status, compared with 4,411 Republicans.

Could this be a leading indicator of a backlash against the national Democratic Party?

North Carolina’s Democratic Party has long had an unusual history with its national brethren. In general, the state’s Democratic voters have been much more conservative. Democrats retained control of the General Assembly for decades after voters began reliably going red in national contests.

The turning point came only when the more liberal faction of the Democratic Party concentrated in the state’s urban areas gained more power. In the 2010 elections, Republicans grabbed control of both houses of the General Assembly.

The national Democratic Party has continued to lurch to the left and gained more attention as potential 2020 presidential candidates jockey for position.

This dynamic is already showing up in the 2019 campaigns.

Though 2018 was a wave election for Democrats, it’s the Republicans running in special congressional elections who are trying to nationalize the race.

The first TV ad in the 3rd Congressional District race, supporting Michele Nix, attacks New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In the 9th Congressional District special election, Republican Matthew Ridenhour has also sought to tie his opponent to the controversial liberal figure and with Vermont Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders.

The only path to victory in North Carolina elections includes unaffiliated voters

General election candidates need to both rally their party’s base and grab a hold of unaffiliated voters. This group has proven willing to support either party, and their preference is heavily based on their impressions of the national party.

This will only become more true as unaffiliated voters become the largest voting bloc in more areas. This year, unaffiliated voters also became the largest group in Wake County.

Then-gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper speaking to the N.C. Democratic Party in 2016. Photo by Kyle Taylor via Flickr (Creative Commons).

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