The largest group of voters in Oregon are those who are unaffiliated. Even if all of Oregon’s registered Democrats cast Democratic ballots in the general election this November and all of the Republicans cast Republican ballots, that outcome won’t even come close to ending the dispute.
One significant factor is that people who register as “nonaffiliated,” or NAVs, make up the majority of voters in Oregon.
However, what does that imply for the results of the general election that will take place in a few months?
Fewer solutions are revealed when you dig further into the numbers, which is where elections are won and lost.
The NAV’s rise to the top spot just occurred this year, but it’s hardly a noteworthy or significant change. According to the Secretary of State’s office’s compilation of voter registration data for August, nonaffiliates made up 34.4% of all voters today, compared to Democrats’ 34.2% and Republicans’ 24.7%. The Independent Party came in at 4.7%. (Notice how closely the Democratic and NAV numbers remain.)
The Independent Party had nearly the same percentage in 2018 as it has now, four years earlier. However, the Democratic Party (35.4%) and the Republican Party (25.8%) both had greater electorate shares; the NAVs (then at 32%) have subsequently expanded at both parties’ expense, seemingly drawing from both parties fairly evenly.
If you look back a full ten years to 2012, you can detect such tendencies. At that time, Republicans made up 31.4% of the electorate, while nonaffiliated voters made up just 22%. The Independent Party had 4% of the vote, which is not far from where they are now.
In contrast, the nonaffiliated sector has increased by more than half over the past ten years.
This may be due to a number of factors, in addition to unhappiness with the major parties. “There are at least 300,000 new registrants since 2016 because of (the Oregon Motor Voter Act),” noted Paul Gronke, a political science professor at Reed College, in 2019. “And 80% or more of these did not react to a postcard permitting them to an affiliate.”
Whatever the causes, this has been a gradual change, not one that happened overnight. The transition took years, and both political teams were almost equally impacted.
What may we infer about those who leave the parties?
Today, nonaffiliated voters make up the majority in exactly half of the counties in Oregon. Oregon’s Malheur County, which has a non-affiliated rate of 45.9%, is sometimes regarded as the state’s most Republican county.
But don’t draw partisan judgments too quickly: Wheeler County, another stronghold of the GOP, with a 25.5% nonaffiliated rate, making it the least nonpartisan (or, you might say, most political) county. The three counties with the lowest levels of partisanship, Wallowa, Sherman, and Grant, are all heavily Republican. But Benton, which leans heavily Democratic, is the fifth-most partisan county overall.
A mixture of Republican and Democratic counties can be found if you look at which party trails the other for second place. Wasco, Marion, Lincoln, Columbia, Clatsop, Tillamook, and Deschutes counties are among those where Democrats outnumber Republicans but NAVs lag. Malheur, Umatilla, Morrow, Jefferson, Curry, Coos, Josephine, Linn, Yamhill, Jackson, and Polk are their Republican-leaning counterparts. Both the coast and a sizable portion of eastern and central Oregon seem to choose not to affiliate. These counties, however, are very diverse.
The parties in the second position nearly always continue to register victories in the polls. Typically, whichever party registers the most votes manages to win overall, regardless of the number of NAVs. That implies that nonaffiliated are perhaps not as independent as you might suppose. Much like the other counties nearby, they still have a tendency to break apart into parties.
The Portland metro area and Lane County have been the biggest local exception to the trend toward non-affiliation.
In Multnomah County, 23.6% of voters were NAVs ten years ago. Since then, that has increased to 31.8%, a significant decrease from the state average. However, the proportion of Democrats in the state’s largest county has remained almost stable throughout that time, barely dipping from 53.4% to 51.4%. In Multnomah, however, Republicans suffered a loss, dropping from 15.8% to 10.6%. Multnomah increased its NAV ranks at the expense of Republicans, as evidenced by the Independent Party number barely changing.
Despite being less Democratic than Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas, and Lane all have Democratic majorities and collectively have a relatively comparable pattern. Although Republicans are presently well behind Democrats in terms of nonaffiliates in Washington County, this is a significant change from 2012, when Republicans were in a competitive second place.
One distinction between urban Oregon and the rest of the state is the nonaligned vote. Nonaffiliated in Oregon simply refers to voters who did not register with a party. They don’t necessarily vote much differently from those who do, though.
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