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.