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Oregon's unaffiliated voters: more partisan than you might think

They’re the biggest voter bloc but might not much shift the outcomes of November’s elections

If Oregon’s registered Democrats vote Democratic in this November’s general election, and the Republicans vote Republican, those numbers alone won’t come close to settling the deal.

A big reason: The largest group of voters in Oregon are the NAVs – those who register as “nonaffiliated.”

(Disclosure: I’m one of them.)

But what does that mean for the outcome of the general election in another couple of months?

If you dive into the numbers – which is where elections are won and lost – you find fewer answers than you might first think.

The NAV move to the most-numerous ranking came just this year, but it’s not a dramatic or sweeping development. Today – that is, according to the August voter registration figures compiled by the Secretary of State’s office – nonaffiliates comprised 34.4% of all voters, compared with Democrats at 34.2% and Republicans at 24.7%; the Independent Party came in at 4.7%. (You’ll notice the Democratic and NAV numbers still are close.)

Four years ago in 2018, the Independent Party had almost exactly the same percentage as it does now. But the Democrats (at 35.4%) and Republicans (at 25.8%) both had larger shares of the electorate; the NAVs (then at 32%) since have grown at the expense of both, apparently drawing from both parties about evenly.

You can see similar patterns if you go back a full decade to 2012. Then, the Democrats accounted for 40% of the voters, and Republicans 31.4%, while nonaffiliated was a mere 22%. The Independent Party accounted for 4%, not far off where they are today.

The sector of the nonaffiliated, in contrast, has grown by more than half in the last decade.

A variety of reasons may account for this, beyond dissatisfaction with the major parties. Political science professor Paul Gronke at Reed College pointed out in 2019, “There are at least 300,000 new registrants since 2016 because of (the Oregon Motor Voter Act), and 80% or more of these did not respond to a postcard allowing them to an affiliate.”

Whatever the causes, this has been a long-term, not a sudden development. The shift has taken years, and it has affected both political teams almost proportionately.

What can we tell about the people moving away from the parties?

Today, exactly half of Oregon’s counties have a plurality of nonaffiliated voters. The most nonaffiliated county in Oregon is one often considered the most Republican in the state: Malheur in the far east, which is 45.9% unaffiliated.

But don’t be too quick to jump to partisan conclusions: The least-nonaffiliated (or, you could say, the most partisan) county, with just 25.5%, is another strong GOP place, Wheeler County. The next three least-most partisan counties – Wallowa, Sherman, and Grant – also are strongly Republican in their voting patterns. But the fifth most overall partisan county is strongly Democratic Benton.

If you look at which party leads the other for second place, you find a mix of Democratic and Republican counties. Counties, where Democrats outnumber Republicans but trail the NAVs, include Wasco, Marion, Lincoln, Columbia, Clatsop, Tillamook, and Deschutes. Their Republican-oriented counterparts are Malheur, Umatilla, Morrow, Jefferson, Curry, Coos, Josephine, Linn, Yamhill, Jackson, and Polk. The coast seems to like not affiliating, and so do large sections of eastern and central Oregon. But these counties are widely varied.

Part of what’s worth noticing is that the parties in second place almost always continue to register wins at the polls: Ordinarily, whichever party registers more voters tends to win overall, however many NAVs there are. That suggests nonaffiliates are not necessarily as independent as you might think. They still tend to break between the parties much like the rest of the counties around them.

The biggest regional exception to the move toward non-affiliation has been the Portland metro area along with Lane County.

A decade ago, Multnomah County registered 23.6% of its voters as NAVs. That has risen since to 31.8%, an increase well below the state average. But the percentage of Democrats in the state’s largest county has stayed relatively steady over that time, declining just a little from 53.4% to 51.4%. Republicans, however, took a hit in Multnomah, falling from 15.8% to 10.6%. Since the Independent Party percentage barely budged, that suggests Multnomah expanded its NAV ranks mainly at the expense of Republicans.

Washington, Clackamas, and Lane, while less Democratic than Multnomah, all have Democratic pluralities, and as a group shows a somewhat similar pattern. Washington County does have a percentage of nonaffiliates close to that of Democrats, though Republicans now trail far behind, a massive shift from 2012 when Republicans were in a competitive second place.

The nonaligned vote is one of the ways metro Oregon varies from the rest of the state.

In Oregon as a whole, nonaffiliated simply means voters who didn’t join a party. It doesn’t mean they vote a lot differently from those who do.


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