LUMBERTON — Vigorous recruiting efforts can reverse the trend of fewer Robeson County residents registering as Democrats, the county Democratic Party chairman says.
“I don’t think people are turning away from the Democratic Party,” Edward Henderson said. “I think they are just looking for something new and different that may or may not be out there.”
Since 2010, Robeson County’s voter registration pattern has mirrored the state’s, with the number of registered Democrats declining, and Republican and unaffiliated registrations on the rise. The greatest percentage increase in the county since 2010 has been with voters registering as unaffiliated.
Democrats made up 73 percent of the county’s total voter registration in 2010, according to numbers provided by the Robeson County Board of Elections. Republicans made up 11.7 percent of total registered voters that year and unaffiliated voters were 15.2 percent.
Robeson County Democrats’ share of the voting pool has shrank in 2012, 2015 and 2017 — 70.9, 68.8 and 65.7 percent, respectively — while the percentage of Republican and unaffiliated voters grew. Democrats made up 65.7 percent of the county’s 73,684 registered voters two weeks ago, with the GOP making up 13 percent and unaffiliated voters making up 21 percent.
The big growth in unaffiliated voters is not unique to Robeson County, said John McNeill, former Robeson County Democratic Party chairman and the mayor of Red Springs.
“This is happening all over, at the local, county, state and national levels,” he said. “I don’t know why. I can’t read people’s minds. I guess they want flexibility or whatever.”
It is “predominantly white and to a lesser degree Native Americans” who are not registering as Democrats, he said. “It is mostly those who are young not registering as Democrats.”
McNeill said the county Democratic Party is moving in the right direction to increase the number of Robeson County voters who register as Democrats.
“I think the newly elected party executive committee is working on recruitment. The party’s prior focus had been just on turning out the vote. Now the focus is on reaching out and encouraging people to register as Democrats.”
Phillip Stephens, chairman of the Robeson County Republican Party, said that while the county mirrors state voter registration trends, the trend is “faster” in Robeson County.”
“Generally, Democrats are losing up to two points every year,” Stephens said. “Republicans are gaining about a half point a year, and unaffiliated voters are increasing about 1.5 points per year.”
Recent voting registration trends show that Robeson County, and North Carolina in general, are no longer an area in which voters can be taken for granted, he said.
“We are no longer blue or red. We are a purple state and county,” Stephens said.
Stephens said conservative Democrats carry the biggest stick in Robeson County on Election Day.
“Democrats are now even willing to vote Republican in countywide elections,” Stephens said. “That was demonstrated in last year’s election when Republican Danny Britt was elected to the state Senate.”
Bo Biggs, a Lumberton businessman, Republican and longtime observer of Robeson County politics, said that the increase in Republican and unaffiliated voters is largely due to there now being competitive primaries in both Democratic and Republican parties.
“Traditionally if you weren’t a registered Democrat there was no primary for you to participate in,” Biggs said. “The election of offices such as county commissioner, sheriff, register of deeds, and state House and Senate, were decided in the Democratic primary. There were no competitive races in the General Election.”
Biggs said that until a few years ago unaffiliated voters were not permitted to participate in a party primary. That meant, as an example, if only Democrats ran for sheriff, a Republican had no vote in the election.
Now, however, an unaffiliated voter can participate in the primary of their choice. There also in recent years been a sprinkling of viable Republican candidates in countywide races.
“Many people register as unaffiliated because it allows them tremendous flexibility in which party and candidates they choose,” said Biggs. “… Unless a person is a politician or someone who believes strongly about a particular party philosophy it is convenient for them to register as an unaffiliated voter.”
According to Biggs, there is a downside to not registering as a voter within a specific party.
“As an unaffiliated voter, the voter can’t participate in party conventions, governing boards, or party administration,” he said. “That leads to the parties being led by individuals of more extreme philosophies.”
David Edge, the first Republican to serve as a Robeson County commissioner in 100 years, said he believes the Democratic Party is on its way out and the trend toward more Robesonians registering as Republicans or unaffiliated voters will continue. He said that both the national and local Democratic Party have gone too far to the left.
“The Democratic Party has been hijacked by left-wing liberals,” he said. “… I predict that the Democrats have gone so far over the hill that they won’t come back. I don’t think that they can survive.”
Edge said that there are still a lot of conservative people in Robeson County who are registered as Democrats, and like other county political leaders he sees competitive primaries and flexibility for unaffiliated voters as the engines that will drive people to register with the party more in line with their beliefs.
“When I ran for office my goal was to educate people about the Republican Party,” Edge said. “I found so many people who believed like David Edge but said they were Democrats.”
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.