In NC, where have all the Democrats gone? | Opinion

North Carolina Democratic candidates may do well in November, but the Democratic Party itself is losing the contest for new members.

Steve Harrison, the politics and government reporter for public radio station WFAE in Charlotte, recently crunched the state’s voter registration numbers and found Democrats dwindling.

Since 2020, Democratic registrations have dropped by 126,000. That’s on top of a 123,000 loss in the 2016-20 period and a 97,000 drop from 2012 to 2016.

Meanwhile, Republican registration has grown in every four-year cycle since 2004. Since 2020 alone, GOP registrations are up by 156,000. In a state once dominated by Democrats, the parties are nearing parity with Democrats at 2.4 million and Republicans at 2.25 million.

Republicans say the registration patterns show approval for their policies and their performance as the majority in the General Assembly. “It’s a sign that Republican policies work,” said Matt Mercer, a state Republican Party spokesman.

Democrats aren’t happy, but also not alarmed about the loss of registered Democrats. They think the shift represents younger people, who still tend to vote Democratic, preferring to register as unaffiliated. Unaffiliated voters are the state’s largest registered group at 2.79 million and its fastest growing bloc.

And Democrats think the increase in registered Republicans largely represents rural white voters switching their registration to the way they actually vote in national elections – Republican.

Sen. Dan Blue, a Wake County Democrat and state Senate minority leader, said his party’s message can still prevail. The key, he said, is appealing to unaffiliated voters. “We just need to direct our campaigning to them and that’s what we’ve been trying to do. We’re making sure that we talk to the folks who make the difference,” he said.

Blue noted, Democrats still outnumber Republicans. “So the contest,” he said, “is to hold your own and win half of the unaffiliated.”

To hold their own, Democrats have to stanch their losses in rural counties, including some blue ones. Robeson County, for instance, is still two-to-one Democrat, but Republican Donald Trump took 59% of the county vote in 2020 and Democrat registrations have dropped 20% since then.

John Cummings, the Republican chair of the Robeson County Board of Commissioners, said a leftward drift by the national Democratic Party has cost it support in his county. “The people never changed, the national politics changed,” he said. “The people feel like they’ve been left behind.”

The shrinkage of registered Democrats may be a political mirage. Unaffiliated voters tend to vote consistently with one party or the other. An analysis by Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political science professor, found that unaffiliated voters are only “slightly more Republican in their vote leanings.”

Still, the registration losses should give Democrats pause.

Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University political science professor, noted that fewer party members means fewer party workers and fewer potential candidates.

“In the short run, it doesn’t mean much,” he said. “After all, unaffiliated voters can vote for Democrats as easily as can registered Democrats. In the long run, however, this represents something approaching a crisis for the Democratic Party. Running a party takes effort, and it takes people.”

As fewer voters take on the Democrat label, Democrats can only hope that enough of the unaffiliated will subscribe to their party’s views.

Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-404-7583, or nbarnett@