RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Some surprising numbers this week made headlines: About two-thirds of voters across the country who changed parties over the past year reportedly went Republican — adding up to a million more for the GOP.
But in North Carolina, a different trend emerged: More than half of people who switched their affiliations in the past year became unaffiliated.
“I think it’s a warning sign for both parties — a little more for the Democratic Party than the Republican Party,” Western Carolina political science professor Chris Cooper said. “But it is a warning sign for both.”
The Associated Press, relying on data provided by political data firm L2, reported earlier this week that 1.7 million voters across 42 states had likely switched party affiliations — and that about 1 million of those changed to the GOP.
A CBS17.com analysis of state Board of Elections data found roughly 87,000 registered voters in the state changed parties between July 1, 2021, and May 31.
And Republicans here did pick up more party switchers than Democrats did: About three Democrats changed to the GOP for every one Republican that went blue.
But focusing on gains and losses by those two parties misses the bigger picture.
“It’s hard to find any evidence that people are sort of flocking to the Democrats,” Cooper said. “At the same time, what seems to be happening in North Carolina is, they’re leaving both parties.”
Pope “Mac" McCorkle, a public policy and political science professor at Duke University, pointed out that “the weakness of the AP analysis is they did not tell us about the independent factor, and North Carolina is a very good test because we have very firm party registration.”
Indeed, more than half of North Carolina voters who changed their status — 46,000 of them — went unaffiliated.
The most popular move was for Democrats to go unaffiliated, with about 26,000 Democrats doing that. But the second-most popular move was for Republicans to do the exact same thing — and 19,000 of them did.
In all, party-changers only account for just over 1 percent of the state’s 7.3 million registered voters.
About 5,000 North Carolina voters changed parties in the week after the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, a previous CBS 17 report found, with nearly 60 percent of those leaving the GOP.
“The number of switchers is pretty low — you know, it’s not like a giant number,” said Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina. “But this is one way that people who are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, this is one way they show it.”
And for the first time, unaffiliated voters in the state outnumber each of the two major political parties: Nearly 2.6 million registered voters in the state are unaffiliated, compared to nearly 2.5 million Democrats and 2.2 million Republicans.
The AP report also described the shift as “more pronounced” in the suburbs, pointing out Raleigh as one of the places where Republicans gained ground.
About 25,000 of North Carolina’s party-switchers were in the state’s 16 suburban counties — including Johnston, Orange and Cumberland — as defined by the North Carolina Rural Center.
Roughly 7,300 of those changed to the GOP. But nearly twice as many — 13,000 — became unaffiliated instead.
A total of 10,569 Wake County voters changed parties in the past year, with more than 6,000 choosing to be unaffiliated. In that county, Democrats actually picked up more switchers (2,370) than Republicans did (1,923) during that time frame.
The same thing showed up in Durham County, where 622 of the 1,874 switchers went to the Democratic Party compared to 286 going to the GOP. Once again, the largest share (917) went unaffiliated.
There’s also a key word in the AP report: “Likely.”
The data firm that provided the numbers determines party affiliation by using a combination of state voter records and statistical modeling.
“They try to sort of assume or figure out or use statistics to give them a signal as to what those voters might do,” Cooper said. “I find that less-than-compelling logic.”