Unaffiliated voters redefine Buncombe rolls

Buncombe voter registration data
CHANGING TIDES: Unaffiliated voters now outnumber those associated with any one political party in both Buncombe County and North Carolina as a whole. Graphic by Scott Southwick

Buncombe County’s political stereotype is that of the blueberry in the tomato soup: a Democratic stronghold surrounded by otherwise Republican Western North Carolina. But while that may have been true in previous decades, voter registration numbers now tell a different culinary story, with the blueberry replaced by a gray sardine.

That’s because unaffiliated Buncombe voters now outnumber those aligned with any one political party. As of April 9, nearly 83,000 county residents — about 40.3% of all voters — had registered as unaffiliated, compared with about 75,000 Democrats (36.5%), 46,000 Republicans (22.4%) and 1,700 Libertarians (0.8%).

The shift represents an unaffiliated increase of nearly 15 percentage points since the 2008 primaries, when Democratic enthusiasm was on the upswing due to the first campaign of former President Barack Obama. County Democrats subsequently lost more than 7 percentage points of overall voter registration, with Republicans losing more than 8 percentage points. (As of early 2008, the Libertarian Party was not officially recognized by North Carolina.)

North Carolina as a whole has seen similar changes. Since early 2008, the share of unaffiliated voters across the state has grown by about 13.6 percentage points, with Democrats losing 10.4 percentage points and Republicans about 3.9. Among Buncombe’s immediate neighbors, Haywood, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties all have a plurality of unaffiliated voters. (Full numbers are available at ​​avl.mx/bh3.)

What’s driving this increase? In a 2020 interview with Xpress, Western Carolina University political science professor Chris Cooper noted the flexibility unaffiliated voters enjoy: They can choose any partisan ballot during primary elections, while voters registered with a specific party must vote in that party’s primary. Cooper also said vitriolic partisan rhetoric at the federal level might discourage some people from aligning with a party.

And the trend doesn’t appear to be slowing down. As reported by Old North State Politics, North Carolina’s youngest voters are the most likely to register as unaffiliated, with 46% of new Generation Z voters registering as unaffiliated in 2018 and 2020.


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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the former news editor of Mountain Xpress. His work has also appeared in Sierra, The Guardian, and Civil Eats, among other national and regional publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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6 thoughts on “Unaffiliated voters redefine Buncombe rolls

  1. NFB

    In regards to the first paragraph of this article: Buncombe has not always been as blue as it is today , and other counties in WNC have not always been as red as it is today.

    In the 80’s Buncombe was deeply purple. In 2002 when Elizabeth Dole was elected to the US Senate she carried Buncombe by literally one vote. She lost Haywood, Jackson, Swain, Madison and Yancey counties many by sizable margins.

    Go back a little further into the 1980’s. All of those counties, along with Transylvania, regularly voted for Democratic candidate Jaime Clarke in all five of his runs for Congress. The margins he got in Buncombe were much closer than in those other counties.

    Each of those other five counties voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976 AND in 1980 when he lost to Reagan in a landslide. Buncombe supported him only in 1987. Haywood and Swain even voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988 while Buncombe voted for Bush by 15 points. Obama was, arguably, competitive in 2008 in all those counties and he won in Jackson.

    In the infamous Jim Hunt vs. Jesse Helms Senate race, Jim Hunt won all the mentioned counties, some by double digits. His margin was closet (about 2 points) in Buncombe.

    It has only been with the trend in recent years of urban areas moving sharply blue and rural areas moving sharply red has the contrast with Buncombe and the rest of WNC been so glaring.

  2. Richard B.

    Lots of possible theories to explain the phenomenon of the rise of Unaffiliated voters, – could keep a conversation going for hours.
    It is a paradox if one stops to consider that the new Gen Z folks registering, those between 18 and 25, are not all registering as Democrats,
    given the exhortations and unremitting Leftist narrative of the Main Stream Media, most social media networks, and the liberal narrative from their HS and college teachers and professors.
    Amazing really. So why are so many NOT committing as Liberal voters?
    Could it be the mindset among many of these “youngsters” that all things “Before Me” are to be viewed with caution, even suspicion?
    That a “New Order” is essential for the world to survive; – that the previous generations have wrought increasingly untenable “truths” of denying the world is at risk from global warming, of outmoded and unnecessary mores and civil codes, of a Constitution that is not longer relevant, etc., etc.
    Be interesting to have some of them weigh in on this discussion. But of course we won’t hear from them, – they
    don’t read these articles and comments.

    • Shultz!

      Could also just be that as people become more educated in our information age they decide that overly-simplistic lumping of folks into ‘Leftist’ & ‘Trumper’ camps is for those who can’t (or refuse to) understand nuance. It certainly requires a lot more brainpower and effort to consider individuals vs. tossing out labels, but the world is a complex place & this is the right course of action.

      • Richard B.

        A plausible explanation.
        Would hope that you are correct. Certainly a positive outlook on the Gen Z guys and gals.

    • Enlightened Enigma

      oh yes we do read these articles and comments ! and yes, it’s the smarter people who remain non partisan.

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