I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen people recommend or discount political predictions by citing party registration. Reacting to a voter survey, for example, they compare the party-identification data in the poll to the party registration data in their states in order to evaluate the validity of the poll.
That’s a big mistake. Party registration and party identification are not the same thing. In states with a history of single-party rule, there have long been many older voters who were registered in one party while acting as though they were members of another party. In North Carolina, we’re familiar with this phenomenon in the form of conservative Democrats — “Jessiecrats” back in the day — who acted as Republicans when casting many or most of their votes. In historically Republican states such as Vermont, some left-of-center voters retained their GOP registration and yet voted reliably for Democratic candidates.
In reality, these “boll weevil” Democrats and “gypsy moth” Republicans are not nearly as prevalent as they used to be. Some of these voters are no longer with us. (Perhaps they now split their tickets when casting ballots for municipal offices in Heaven.) Others have, finally, switched their party registrations to match their political behavior.
Even as the two major parties have become more politically coherent and ideologically consistent, however, another factor has preserved the gap between party registration and party identification: the growth of unaffiliated voters. According to the latest data from the state board of elections, 27 percent of North Carolina’s nearly 6.6 million voters have registered no party preference.
Some have immediately jumped to the conclusion that nearly all of these voters are swing voters, that they are up for grabs in general-election contests. That’s not true. The decision not to affiliate formally with either the Democrats or the Republicans is part of a broader trend of choosing not to affiliate formally with other brands or social institutions. It doesn’t necessarily mean that unaffiliated voters have moderate views, mixed sentiments, or no political opinions at all. There are unaffiliated voters in, say, Chapel Hill whose views are so left-wing that they don’t feel comfortable in the Democratic Party. Still, when they get into the voting booth, they almost always vote for Democratic candidates. Similarly, there are unaffiliated voters who live in suburbs in and around Charlotte, the Triangle, or the Triad and are really Republicans in all but name.
A new Gallup poll of the North Carolina electorate illustrates the point well. Using tracking-poll data from the first six months of 2014, it found that 42 percent of voting-aged North Carolinians identify themselves as Democrats, 41 percent identify themselves as Republicans, and the remaining 17 percent identify themselves as unaffiliated or, in a few cases, as belonging to a different party (primarily Libertarian). Compare that to the latest voter-registration statistics: 42 percent Democratic, 30.6 percent Republican, 0.4 percent Libertarian, and 27 percent unaffiliated.
Now, you can’t actually make a direct comparison because the two sets of data measure different populations. Gallup’s party-ID statistic comes from a survey of all adults, including those who don’t or can’t vote. Zeroing in on likely North Carolina voters would probably produce a small Republican edge over Democrats in party ID. That wouldn’t be at all surprising for surveys taken during a midterm election year, when Republican-leaning groups tend to turn out at higher rates than their Democratic peers.
Nevertheless, a fair reading of the two sets of data would be that a large share of unaffiliated voters in North Carolina — perhaps a third or more — are in practice Republican voters. If you add in a small number of unaffiliated voters who reliably behave as Democrats, it would be reasonable to consider something like 10 to 15 percent of the electorate to be truly unaligned.
That’s still a significant share. It means that candidates can’t win just by turning out their base. They have to swing some unaligned voters their way. But be careful not to exaggerate the number — or to use party registration as a guide for evaluating survey results and prognosticating elections.
John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.