The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Beware, party bosses, the rise of the unaffiliateds is coming for you

Voters at the polls at the South Regional Library in Durham, N.C., on Nov. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
5 min

Tony Woodlief is the author of “I, Citizen: A Blueprint for Reclaiming American Self-Governance.

The decennial battle over shaping 7,194 congressional and state legislative districts across the United States is drawing to a close. I hope the politicians involved in this ritual enjoyed it, because 10 years from now, if present trends continue, they’re going to have a much harder time using map-drawing software to pick their voters instead of just letting voters pick their politicians. Here in North Carolina, a clue to the future may already be emerging.

The assumption that most voters are faithful adherents of Team Red or Team Blue drives redistricting, just as it fuels the media’s constant refrain that the nation is bitterly divided. But subscribing to that view requires ignoring or soft-pedaling the reality that Americans are steadily shifting away from partisan affiliations.

In recent years, Gallup has found in poll after poll that, by big margins, more Americans consider themselves independents than Republicans or Democrats. Last month, 40 percent of Americans identified as independents; 28 percent as Republicans and 30 percent as Democrats. After Gallup began asking the question in 2004, independents regularly tallied in the 20s and 30s.

In North Carolina, the number of registered voters opting out of a party label has more than doubled since 2008. Unaffiliateds will almost certainly be the largest bloc of voters in the spring primaries.

Many analysts say that independents are closet partisans, citing nationwide election-year surveys showing that most independents say they “lean” toward one major party or the other — but that’s true in part because pollsters insist that they choose a side.

Come Election Day, most independents do vote for the candidates of the party they were leaning toward, which skeptics treat as proof of their secret, enduring loyalty. But following individual voters across multiple elections reveals that independents lean toward a single party with far less consistency and fervor than even the weakest of Democrats and Republicans.

The ideological flexibility of these unaffiliated voters in North Carolina is reflected in their responses to pollsters. In a Meredith Poll last October, 88 percent of unaffiliated North Carolina voters said that one or both of the two major parties’ leaders are extreme, and 44 percent said neither party governs ethically. More than a third said neither party is “concerned with the needs of people like me.”

A question about critical race theory illuminated an even sharper distinction between unaffiliateds and partisans. When asked for three words that describe CRT, the top responses from North Carolina Republicans were “reverse discrimination,” “brainwashing” and “bulls---.” Democrats countered with “necessary,” “truth” and “honest.” Our soon-to-be majority of unaffiliated voters, meanwhile, called CRT “divisive,” “confusing” and “ridiculous” — words that appear aimed more at bickering partisans than at the policies themselves.

Summarizing their recent research into the voting behavior of North Carolina unaffiliateds, a team of local political scientists observed: “Unaffiliated voters in North Carolina are not simply closet partisans. They hold distinct political beliefs that fall somewhere between the two major parties on most issues.”

When 60 percent of voters refuse to ascribe to themselves an ideology that is anything more than slightly liberal or conservative, why have many politicians scuttled further left and right? Primarily because many of the activists and donors who fuel the modern party machinery occupy the poles of the ideological spectrum. Surveys of delegates to party conventions, for example, reveal attitudes diverging significantly from the beliefs of average Americans.

Major donors, likewise, demand policies that are out of step with even their party’s own voters. In many cases, the majority of money a candidate receives comes from people who don’t even live in the politician’s district. Perhaps worst of all, the kinds of politicians who thrive under these incentives drive away the kinds of leaders the country needs.

Conventional wisdom holds that extreme partisans also dominate primaries, but there’s evidence that primary voters in many recent elections have not differed ideologically all that much from the broader electorate. As more states open their primaries to unaffiliated voters, the grip that partisans hold on Election Day choices will continue to loosen.

Over the past several elections, unaffiliated North Carolina voters have been participating in Democratic and Republican primaries in growing numbers. Those unaffiliated voters also tend to alternate which party’s primary they participate in. A substantial majority of them opted for the Democratic primary in 2008, drifted toward GOP primaries in 2012 and 2016, and then moved back to the Democratic primary in 2020. Skeptics write this off as strategic partisanship, but very few open partisans follow suit, despite the relative ease of switching parties in North Carolina. Independents participate in the primaries they perceive to offer real choices.

Imagine that: real choices. What all this means is that common-sense candidates with the stomach to enter the fray, knock on doors and raise enough small-dollar donations to garner name recognition, even in a media environment that favors partisan spitball fights, have a real chance of attracting independent voters. The party bosses are sitting atop dying brands. In the long run, no amount of map-drawing machinations can save them.