RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Unaffiliated voters became the largest block of registered voters in North Carolina this year, and a new study published this week takes a deep dive into who these voters are and to what extent they can be considered swing voters.

The number of people choosing to register as unaffiliated has been on the rise across the last few decades, now comprising 36 percent of all registered voters in North Carolina, according to the NC State Board of Elections. By comparison, 34 percent are registered Democrats and 30 percent are registered Republicans.

Chris Cooper, a professor at Western Carolina University and one of the co-authors of the report, said, “I think of that Seinfeld line all the time. ‘Who are these people?’”

The report compares unaffiliated voters to unmoored boats.

“As long as there’s no big storm, it’s probably going to hang out there. If you get big electoral tides, however, it might very well move away from the dock very quickly and could end up across the lake,” Cooper said.

Unaffiliated voters in North Carolina can choose which party’s primary to participate in each election.

The team looked at how consistently these voters chose the same party’s primary and how many of them switched from one election to another in an effort to try to discern how many of these voters may truly be “shadow partisans.”

They classified 27 percent of unaffiliated voters as “shadow Democrats” and 27 percent as “shadow Republicans,” meaning they consistently chose that party’s primary. The remaining unaffiliated voters, nearly half of them, are considered “floaters,” moving between the two parties for reasons such as the electoral environment or choice of candidates.

“It does line up with North Carolina being a 50-50 state. And, if I think about the one quick takeaway from this: not all unaffiliated voters are swing voters but all — almost all — swing voters are unaffiliated voters,” Cooper said.

The researchers also looked at survey data from Meredith College, finding unaffiliated voters consistently landing between Democrats and Republicans on key issues like free community college, the president’s approval rating and raising taxes on high-income earners.

“We’re social scientists. We’re used to messy data,” Cooper said. “Humans are weird beings. So, it’s so rare that you analyze lots of different data and get the same answers.”

A key factor that jumped out to Cooper was that unaffiliated voters skew younger, saying Millennials and Generation Z have fueled much of the rise in unaffiliated voter registration. Pluralities of both age groups are registered unaffiliated.

While unaffiliated may be the largest voter group, Cooper noted only 3.63 percent of candidates were unaffiliated this year.

“If there are more and more unaffiliated voters, fewer and fewer Democrats and Republicans, who’s going to run for office 20 years from now? And, we’re not really sure what the answer to that question is,” Cooper said. “Twenty years from now, they’re just not going to be able to run for and win office without massive structural change that I don’t see us having.”

Additional co-authors of the report include Catawba College’s Dr. Michael Bitzer, Davidson College’s Dr. Susan Roberts and Meredith College’s Dr. Whitney Ross Manzo.