15. Williams Parker stands outside of the West Asheville Public Library on Tuesday, March 15, 2016, recruiting prospective voters to sign a petition asking to allow Green Party candidates to be let on future ballots in North Carolina. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

Ever wonder why you can live in one place and see virtually no politically advertisements, but visit another town, not necessarily far away, and you’re suddenly inundated with candidates at all levels boasting, slinging mud and trying to ensure you vote for them and not their opponent?

One big reason is the number of voters in a particular area and their partisan affiliation, especially as it relates to the most competitive contests on the ballot this year.

When the state moves into the general election cycle in the fall, different factors will likely influence WNC advertising by direct mail, television, radio, newspaper and other media for president, Senate, congress, governor, council of state offices, legislative seats and local races.

But in either case, getting the message out to the right voters is what wins elections.

Campaigns crunch the voter registration numbers and know where their voters are. Those are the people they’re going to pursue.

Carolina Public Press has recently analyzed some partisan affiliation trends for WNC counties and found some surprising results than could shape the intensity of campaigns in each area, assuming the campaigns read these numbers correctly.

Primary races

With congressional primaries slated for June 7, Western North Carolina residents can generally expect to see plenty of political ads as that day approaches. But how much they see will depend on where they live.

A two-way Republican primary race and three-way Democratic primary in U.S. House District 5, which includes Watauga and Avery counties, could especially lead to a focus there.

Less competitive races for some other districts could lead to less targeting. There’s a four-way Republican primary in District 10, which includes all or parts of Buncombe, Henderson, Polk and Rutherford counties. But incumbent Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-Denver, has repeatedly won primary fights in his district by wide margins, letting the challengers divide his opposition while he mostly ignores them.

With only one Democrat, Andy Millard of Columbus, in the running, there won’t be a Democratic primary. That could be a recipe for a quiet campaign leading up to June.

District 11 has the opposite situation. Republican incumbent Rep. Mark Meadows of Cashiers is unchallenged in his own party, but Democrats Tom Hill of Zirconia and Rick Bryson of Bryson City are competing to unseat him.

With no Republican primary, how much voters in the state’s far-western region that makes up this district are flooded with political ads may depend on whether the two Democratic candidates have deep enough pockets to make it a meaningful race. Since the district appears to lean heavily Republican, the outside money that could make it competitive may not be forthcoming.

On the other hand, these media markets cross over district and state boundaries.

Residents tuning in to radio and television stations or subscribing to newspapers that publish, broadcast or circulate to an audience in other district or state can expect to hear plenty of additional advertising for candidates that won’t even be on their ballots.

You can get fired up as a result of the messages you hear about contenders in South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia. You can even donate to campaigns in those states. But unless you live in and register in one of those places, you can’t vote there.

Where the partisans are

CPP’s analysis found that Buncombe County is the most Republican County in Western North Carolina — at least by one measure that will mean a great deal in the congressional primaries, though less in the general election.

The measure in question is the total number of Republicans. With 46,118 registered as of May 15, 2016, Buncombe was home to about 1 in every 4 Republicans in WNC, far more than any other county.

Of course, Buncombe is justifiably thought of as the least Republican County in WNC as well.

That’s because it has more non-Republican voters than any other county in the region. It’s a big county and has trended Democratic in recent elections, especially within the city limits of Asheville. Outlying areas are more complicated, as can be seen in the makeup of the county commissioners elected from each part of Buncombe.

But Buncombe also has the lowest percentage of Republicans in the west at just 24.6 percent of registered voters.

Generally speaking, Buncombe is the exception in the west, which is the most reliably Republican region of the state, just as the eastern Coastal Plain has traditionally been the most reliably Democratic.

But even then, there are exceptions. Jackson County, home to Western Carolina University, and Swain County, home to most of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, are both around 25 percent Republican.

That doesn’t necessarily add up to these counties having the highest percentage of Democratic registrations, though they may lean that way in general elections. Buncombe County’s Democrats account for just over 40 percent of its registered voters. Despite the popular perception of Buncombe as among the friendliest counties for Democrats, that’s slightly less than the statewide average.

Western counties with higher concentrations of Democrats include Haywood at 41.6 percent Democratic registrations, Madison at 41.9 percent and Swain at 40.8 percent.

In all other WNC counties, including Buncombe, Democrats are less concentrated than they are statewide. And while Buncombe is close to the state average, many of these counties are heavily Republican with relatively few Democrats.

Counties with the heaviest partisan bias along these lines include Avery with a 59.8 percent Republican, 12.4 percent Democratic split and Mitchell with just 10.4 percent Democrats to 61.6 percent Republicans. One of the largest heavily concentrated Republican counties in the west is Henderson, which has 38.6 percent Republicans to 22.6 percent Democrats.

And size of the county does matter. Avery might have the highest concentration of Republicans, but in a congressional district or state race, that’s only about 7,300 voters and just doesn’t go nearly as far as the 30,560 GOP voters in Henderson county. Nor, for that matter in a primary election, does it goes as far as the nearly 50,000 Republicans in Buncombe County.

That just might keep the ad dollars out of Avery through June, except what spills in from surrounding broadcast advertising buys. Buncombe residents won’t be spared.

About those Libertarians

Mathematically inclined readers may have noticed that the partisan percentages given above don’t add up to 100, which in a truly two-party system they would.

That’s because voters in North Carolina have three other options for party registration.

One of those is the Libertarian Party, not to be confused with small “l” libertarian any more than small “d” democratic and small “r” republican should be confused with those parties. Philosophical libertarians believe in at least moderate limits on government involvement in people’s lives. They generally favor fewer laws and government institutions.

While many Americans, including members of the two major parties, espouse some degree of philosophical libertarianism, the Libertarian Party has attempted to articulate that philosophy as a third way in American government, with very poor results at the ballot box. For starters, few people are consistent libertarians, with some favoring libertarian fiscal policies but others favoring libertarian approaches to criminal justice or social issues.

Despite a lack of winning candidates in North Carolina, the Libertarian Party is the only minor party that has qualified for the right to appear on the ballot and be included in voter registrations.

The N.C. Board of Elections tracks Libertarian registrations by county, which shows that the party has grown by leaps and bounds in the last two years, with registrations up more than 18 percent during the last two years, a time period in which Democratic and Republican registrations statewide declined by 4.0 percent and 0.5 percent respectively.

That trend was especially pronounced in the west where Libertarian registrations were up 22.3 percent during the same time period.

But before we assume the Libertarians are taking over, a reality check is in order. When talking about Libertarians we are still discussing a tiny fraction of registered voters, so few and so lacking in local concentration that they barely make a dent at election time, except when their votes arguably sway the closest of major races. The numbers are up, but Libertarians haven’t hit critical mass.

WNC has 11.08 percent of the state’s Libertarian voters, a bit higher than its 9.43 percent of all voters. But the region is still less than 1 percent Libertarian at 3,088 out of 614,226 WNC registered voters. The 429 Libertarians in Watauga County are the most concentrated group in WNC, but they still account for just 1 percent of that county’s voters.

Reading the unaffiliated category

Residents registering to vote in this state who don’t want to side with the two major parties or the Libertarians have two remaining options. They can select “unaffiliated.” Or they can write in the name of a non-qualified party. The distinction between the two is virtually meaningless.

“If a voter chooses ‘Other in the party affiliation, it is unaffiliated and we do not track what they write on the line,” wrote Jackie Hyland, N.C. Board of Elections public information officer, in an email to CPP on Thursday.

The state tracks data on these two categories together. That makes reading the meaning of “unaffiliated” a bit complicated.

Some unaffiliated voters have no use for the partisan system and genuinely prefer to avoid identifying with any political party. Some may be protecting their ability to participate in one party’s primary in a given year and another party’s in another.

Other voters might have a somewhat clear party preference but chose or are professionally required to select “unaffiliated” in order to avoid the appearance of party loyalty influencing their work, since party affiliation is public record and anyone with Internet access can check what someone’s affiliation is. This option for professionally unaffiliated status is true of many journalists, for example.

But voters who prefer some other party that’s not recognized in North Carolina can only write that party on their registration form, knowing that they will still be identified as unaffiliated.

About 33.6 percent of WNC voters are unaffiliated in one form or another, while just 28 percent of those in other parts of the state are unaffiliated. Unaffiliated voters are the most rapidly growing group, with a nearly 6 percent increase in WNC over the last two years and slightly faster growth statewide.

The heaviest WNC concentrations of unaffiliated voters are in Watauga at 40 percent, Transylvania at 38.3 percent, Henderson at 38.4 percent, Polk at 35.3 percent and Buncombe at 34.7 percent.

But those numbers probably don’t represent the same type of voter in each county.

Considering that Watauga is a hotbed of the Libertarian Party, is home to a major university – usually a source of left-leaning voters, and is still more heavily Republican than most of the state, the unaffiliated voters there may come from several sources.

Those leaning Libertarian but wanting to vote in the other parties’ primaries may be represented, along with advocates for more radical unqualified parties or partisans who don’t want to publicize their political views for professional reasons.

In Transylvania, Henderson and Polk counties, those unaffiliated voters appear to trend conservative, or at least constitute moderates who want to vote in the dominant Republican Party’s primary elections.

In Buncombe County, there’s clearly a movement pushing for additional left-leaning political parties to qualify in North Carolina, as represented by Green Party advocates at Asheville precincts in March, encouraging voters to sign a petition supporting their efforts. As a result, many of these voters likely participate in the Democratic Party primary and may vote for the left-leaning wing of the party, such as for Socialist U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the recent presidential primary.

That trend is distinct from the norm in most of the state when high numbers of unaffiliated voters have typically indicated strong chances for Republican candidates.

Not simple

With the mix of partisan and nominally nonpartisan politics throughout the region, campaign strategists have their hands full in mapping out strategies for the region.

Campaigns that fail to discern these differences in party loyalties, may find themselves failing to connect with the voters they’re going to need in June or November.

In the meantime, when you see a political ad, you’ll know it’s trying to find that target, which may or may not include you.

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Frank Taylor is the managing editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact him at ftaylor@carolinapublicpress.org.

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