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The Party Line is dedicated to examining regional issues and policies through the figures who give shape to them. These are critical, complex, and even downright confusing times we live in. There’s a lot to navigate nationally and in the Carolinas; whether it’s elections, debates on gay marriage, public school closings, or tax incentives for economic development. The Party Line’s goal is to offer a provocative, intelligent look at the issues and players behind the action; a view that ultimately offers the necessary insight for Carolina voters to hold public servants more accountable.

Breaking Down 2012 to Forecast 2016 Turnout

Michael Bitzer
Michael Bitzer

As we enter the homestretch of the 2016 election, much attention will turn from the horse race (i.e., the polls) to the turnout race. Much will be made about what kind of electorate will show up, based on racial dynamics, age, gender, and, from what seems like a major fault line for 2016, education.

North Carolina’s electorate has expanded considerably since 2000, with 2008 and 2012 continuing to see more voters casting ballots: 4.3 million in 2008 and 4.5 million in 2012. While much has been made about a supposed lack of enthusiasm for two of the most negative-rated candidates, it’s worth repeating (ad nauseam) that the November 8th contest will hinge on the critical component of voter turnout, especially in battleground states like North Carolina.

First, one can look at the composition of North Carolina’s 2012 electorate to gain some sense of what we may expect (and I stress ‘may,’ because this year seems to be discounting some of the general patterns of what we have seen play out in the past).

With that disclaimer, there are a number of facets from 2012 that we can review, starting first with the overall composition by party, and then look at race, age, and ‘regionalism’ (or the urban/suburban/rural composition).

Composition of the electorate is all based on voter turnout, and North Carolina’s competitive status has developed because of the ground game operations and “get out the vote” efforts.

In 2004, Democrats turned out at 66 percent of their registration numbers, while Republicans turned out at 70 percent of their registration numbers; only 54 percent of unaffiliated voters showed up in 2004, with George W. Bush winning the state for the second time by 13 percentage points.

This made the 2004 electorate 47 percent Democratic, 37 percent Republican, and only 15 percent unaffiliated among the 3.5 million registered voters casting ballots.

With Obama’s ground game and the heightened interest in the 2008 election, the turnout numbers went up significantly across the board, especially among Democrats, who saw 73 percent of their registered voters match the Republicans’ registered voter turnout as well. The rise of unaffiliated voters was also notable, with 64 percent of them showing up to cast ballots. It is worthy to remember that Obama won the state by only 14,000 votes.

So, in 2008, the overall electorate composition was 47 percent Democratic, 33 percent Republican, and 20 percent unaffiliated.

Four years later, only after Republicans had learned the lesson of 2008, did the GOP registered voter turnout, at 73 percent, exceed Democrats, with 70 percent. Unaffiliated voters slipped from their 2008 turnout rate, dropping to60 percent of them showing up. That made the electorate composition 44 percent Democratic, 33 percent Republican, and 23 percent unaffiliated.

This compared to a voter registration pool (i.e., the 6.6 million voters registered on November 6, 2012) that was 43 percent registered Democrats, 30 percent registered Republican, and 26 percent registered unaffiliated. So the 2012 electorate was slightly more partisan than the overall registration pool.

As of October 15, the voter registration pool for 2016’s election stands at 40 percent registered Democratic, 30 percent registered Republican, and 30 percent registered unaffiliated voters.

The general takeaway is that registered partisans in North Carolina are much more likely to cast ballots than unaffiliated voters. While some will doubt that the state will see an electorate of 4.5 million voters like in 2012, the composition will be a determining factor. The most basic dynamics are the turnouts among registered partisans and unaffiliated voters. I’ll be diving into the comparisons of the electorate based on race, age, gender, and urban/suburban/rural counties in the next blog post as we get closer to November 8.

Dr. Michael Bitzer is an associate professor of politics and history at Catawba College, where he also serves as the 2011-2012 Swink Professor for Excellence in Classroom Teaching and the chair of the department of history & politics. A native South Carolinian, he holds graduate degrees in both history and political science from Clemson University and The University of Georgiaââ