Early voting is now underway in North Carolina. And this year, registration data show more voters are choosing not to affiliate with any political party. One quarter of the state’s electorate is now “unaffiliated”---a rise of 21 percent since 2008. In fact, in Mecklenburg County, unaffiliated voters have overtaken Republicans. But NOT SO FAST says WFAE’s political analyst Michael Bitzer. He’s been analyzing the data, and he tells Duncan McFadyen just because people are distancing themselves from parties, it doesn’t mean they’ve changed their partisan leanings.
MCFADYEN: So, obviously, the North Carolina population hasn’t grown by 21 percent [in 4 years]. Why do you think people are going out of their way --- because people are having to go and change their registration to leave a party --- why are they doing that?
BITZER: I think the stigma of the polarization certainly has been very intense this year. Both sides, you know, look at the last presidential debate we had this week. The two men running as a Democrat and as a Republican basically walked up to each other pointing each other’s fingers. There are some voters that are probably saying, “you know what, that’s just too intense.” Now certainly, the partisans are going to like that, because they like their candidate standing up to the opposition. But, there are probably some who are saying, “this level of intensity is just off-putting, and I don’t want to be associated with either one.” The interesting thing is both parties are going to have to go after those unaffiliated, independent voters to make up a winning coalition come November 6th.
MCFADYEN: And it makes it even harder, because if someone was registered with the party, the party gets the data for them and can target them with mailings and phone calls and other things.
BITZER: Exactly. All of this in terms of a base election when you’re mobilizing your adherence. The key, I think this year, to this race. And when somebody flips to undecided or unaffiliated: Can the Republicans go after them? Can the Democrats go after them? It becomes a real target for the battle of grass roots mobilization.
MCFADYEN: So people may end up getting twice the mailers than they would’ve gotten if they’d just stayed with a party?
BITZER: It could be a mixed blessing.
MCFADYEN: On to a race now that doesn’t affiliate with political parties: The North Carolina Supreme Court. It’s taken an unusual turn; a super-PAC called the North Carolina Judicial Coalition, backed by conservative interests, has taken out an ad in support of incumbent justice Paul Newby. His challenger is appellate court judge Sam Ervin, IV, grandson of the late U.S. Senator.
NCJC AD: (singing) “There’s a judge they call Paul Newby, he’s got criminals on the run. Paul’s steely stare’s got ‘em runnin’ scared…” (fades out)
MCFADYEN: And the ad goes on to talk about Newby’s experience as a prosecutor. It doesn’t really tap into any kind of ideology. The super-PAC ad sparked a response from the Ervin campaign:
ERVIN CAMPAIGN AD: (voiceover) “The North Carolina Supreme Court should not be for sale. But, so called independent groups are spending thousands to buy a seat on the state’s highest court…” (fades out)
MCFADYEN: And in that ad, Sam Ervin goes on to talk about how he will be fair and he wants to fight to keep outside influences away from the court. What’s going on here?
BITZER: Well, certainly, we’ve got two candidates that don’t have the luxury of having party labels associated with their names. And so voters, whenever they get into the non-partisan races, are going to look for some kind of cues. Sam Ervin certainly has the name recognition because of his family’s legacy in politics in the state. But Newby is trying to differentiate himself, not only being the incumbent, but also portraying himself as a law and order judge. And, even though it is well- below the radar, this is going to be one of the key political battles in this year’s election.
MCFADYEN: We also heard this week that the DNC host committee came up short in its fundraising and had to tap into some corporate funds and use a line of credit that was guaranteed by Duke Energy. The DNCC had said that they were going to keep the public updated periodically, and then they got very conspicuously quiet. Now, we’ve had the official filing. Is this some egg on the Democrats’ face that they weren’t able to raise the money that they thought they were going to raise?
BITZER: I think it certainly put them into an extreme bind. When President Obama announced that this was going to be the most open, the most transparent, and the most people-oriented convention in history, he kind of tied the Democrats with one hand behind their back when he said that they couldn’t take corporation donations to fund the convention. Certainly, it was a worthwhile goal, but in the end, you’ve got to pay your debts, and with the couple million dollars that the Democrats still owe to a variety of vendors, they’re probably going to be paying this off for some time. It certainly does not help the Democrats in the context, but I think this election, we’ve kind of moved on from the conventions, and really, it will probably be just the Republicans making hay out of it. The average voter; they’re not really going to be concerned.
Michael Bitzer is a professor of political science and history and Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C. You can read more of his insights at thepartyline.org.