On the cusp of this year’s midterm election — the Most Important Election Of Our Lifetimes, most candidates will tell you — we want to take a moment to acknowledge the most important trend in North Carolina politics this year, perhaps even this decade.

It happened in March: Unaffiliated voters became the largest subset of the electorate in the Old North State, and the gap between those who ally with a political party and those who do not has since widened even more.

As of Oct. 15, just shy of 2.5 million North Carolinians are registered with the Democratic Party; Republicans number just north of 2.2 million. But more than 2.6 million are registered as independent, or “Unaffiliated” in the state’s official language. And nobody, really, knows who they are.

Surely a lot of them are conservatives who see RINOs everywhere in the legacy GOP operation; perhaps just as many are young voters who distrust all party politics; many must be disillusioned progressives who can no longer relate to the Democrats; some may acknowledge the fallacy in thinking one ideology can come up with solutions to all our society’s ills.

But no one has any hard numbers on this, and it’s blowing electoral politics all to hell in NC, where even seasoned candidates and their fixers can’t read the tea leaves clearly.

It’s a good thing. When one registers to a political party, they are basically saying, “I will vote for you candidate no matter what.” Not always, of course, but enough to base election math on it. The converse is also true: The unaffiliated voter is saying, “I will vote for whomever I agree with the most about X.” The X, of course, is a moving target. Could be gun rights. Could be abortion access.

And the unaffiliated voters are voting! Of the 36,197 votes cast by mail before the cutoff day on Tuesday, 12,057 of them came from unaffiliated voters, compared to 5,916 Republican and 18,153 Democrats.

What does that mean? Nobody knows!

Regardless of its detrimental effect on election handicapping, we all benefit from large numbers of unaffiliated voters. Party registration is one of the mechanisms for partisan gerrymandering, remember. Party politics are more divisive than college basketball in our state. And when politicians can no longer rely on political parties to get them elected, it forces them to consider their positions more closely.

It’s hard for candidates to play to the room when they cannot get a read.

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