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Wednesday, 13 September 2006 00:00

Unaffiliated voters are an emerging force

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By Kirkwood Callahan • Guest Columnist

Political change may arrive with the speed of a tsunami transforming all before it. The GOP takeover of Congress in 1994 was such an event.

Another change may move more slowly like a steadily rising tide. We take note only after it reaches us. The ascent of unaffiliated voters in North Carolina is such a phenomenon.

Today one in every five registered voters is unaffiliated with any political party.

This growth in the unaffiliated eclipsed the majority status of the Democrats and prevented the GOP from significant gains in its share of registered voters.

Since 1996, the Democratic share statewide of all registered voters has dropped to a plurality of 45.61 percent — a decrease of almost 9 percent — which contrasts with an 8 percent increase in the unaffiliated. (Actual numbers of registered Democrats increased 7 percent, suggesting that older party loyalists still hang in there.) The Republicans’ share was almost frozen with a percentage gain of less than 1 percent. The GOP now claims 34.6 percent statewide.

The growth of the unaffiliated has permeated much of the state. In the 14 counties of the 11th Congressional District, the trend in party registration almost paralleled the state. Democrats dropped more than 10 percent to a present share of about 41 percent. The GOP decreased slightly less than a full percentage point to just under 36 percent. The unaffiliated had almost a full 10 percent rise to over 23 percent.

This rise of the unaffiliated and their apparent ticket splitting produce mixed electoral results with Republican and Democratic candidates in different statewide races receiving similar vote counts.

The 2004 General Election provides numerous examples. George Bush and Dick Cheney, opposed by John Kerry and North Carolina’s Sen. John Edwards, tallied over 1.9 million votes. However, their count only exceeded Democratic Gov. Mike Easley’s by little more than 22,000 votes. While Democrats continued to dominate state government, the GOP did have gains on the Council of State.

If neither party or regional loyalties determines electoral outcomes, what does?

Future research may give us more answers but there is already enough data to provide useful insights to candidates in this year’s races. The John Locke Foundation reports that its Agenda poll has showed” a steadily rising percentage of North Carolina voters labeling themselves as conservative. In 2004, the share reached 45 percent.” Other polls reported by Locke’s John Hood showed that the number of North Carolinians identifying themselves as conservative or moderate was about 40 percent each. “Self-identified liberals” were reported at around 20 percent.

When polling and registration data is combined with the results of recent elections, the importance of communicating ideas becomes obvious. The candidate who carries his or her message to the center-right majority with the most clarity and substance will win the race.

The greater part of the North Carolina electorate is waiting for the political message that will capture their votes. People want to be wooed and won over. To the many that may determine victory or defeat, the party label is not important.

I find some irony in this conclusion because in an earlier column I argued the importance of party as a reason for supporting Charles Taylor in the 11th Congressional District race. Political parties and not individuals run our governmental institutions. In the legislative branch they determine who constitutes the leadership and who chairs what committee. In the executive branch party shapes policy and determines how the laws will be executed. The judicial branch at the national level is shaped by the interaction of parties as the President nominates and the Senate advises. Here in North Carolina our judges run in so called non-partisan races, but our parties still endorse judicial slates.

Governors and presidents may hope for bi-partisanship, but we are living in an era where the parties diverge greatly — particularly at the leadership level. Many voters might be surprised if they took more time to understand how the support of candidates from different parties sends mixed signals to our political system.

Recent battles over appointments to the federal judiciary illustrate how a president is dependent upon support by his own party to seat his judicial nominees.

The same interdependence between the legislative and executive branches carries over into all types of legislation — trade, farm subsidies, taxation, etc.

Voters should think more about political realities and the party behind the candidate, while conservative office-seekers need to take a clear and consistent message to their constituents.

(Kirkwood Callahan is a retired political science professor who managed vacation property on Dicks Creek in Jackson County for 15 years. He lives in Waynesville and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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