Even in Big Blue California, Democrats Face a Turnout Crisis

By Jonathan Brown

Much like the warnings on side-view mirrors that say “Caution, objects in mirror are closer than they appear,” analysis of many upcoming California elections should come with a disclaimer that states “Caution, the electorate is older and more Anglo than it appears.” And perhaps a warning light should be illuminated for Democrats heading into the 2014 election season that seems likely to set records for low turnout.

For anything other than a Presidential election, Californians simply are not voting. The most substantial drop-off occurs among Democrats and specifically among younger voters and Latinos (often one and the same). As we analyze likely voter universes for the June primary election based on past voter history, we see the percentages of Republicans far exceeding their overall registration percentage in numerous jurisdictions.

Consider the results of three special elections held in 2013 in districts that were vacated by Democrats. Each jurisdiction would be considered “safe Democrat” in ordinary circumstances with a Democratic registration advantage of more than 20 percentage points.

• In Assembly District 52, a heavily Latino area in Eastern Los Angeles County and the Inland Empire, Democrats hold a 21 point registration advantage. However, Democrat Freddie Rodriguez was able to muster only 51.3% of the vote in an election in which fewer than nine percent of registered voters cast a ballot.

• In Assembly District 45, in the San Fernando Valley, Democrats hold a 23.5 point registration advantage. Here, we saw an even closer call for the Democrat, as Matt Dababneh won with only 50.6% of the vote. Turnout in this race was less than 12 percent.

• This trend bit Democrats in Senate District 16 (pre-redistricting boundaries) in the heavily Latino Central Valley. Despite a better than 21-point registration advantage, the Democrat lost 48%-52%. Because of significant campaign spending on both sides, turnout was higher, but still only 28%.

The implications for 2014 are significant, with Democrats’ supermajorities in both houses of the State Legislature at risk, as well as several Congressional seats. Turnout in both the primary and general elections are likely to be at record low levels. Gubernatorial (non-Presidential) cycle primary turnout had been declining by a point every four years – down to 33% in 2010. However, given that the turnout in the 2012 Presidential primary was only 31%, we may well see primary turnout dip below 30%. In combination with the new “top two” primary system, this record low turnout may produce more surprises on the par of Congressional District 31 in 2012 in which two Republicans proceeded to the General Election in a district carried by Barack Obama with 57% of the vote.

This low turnout has nullified the desired impact of the top two primary system – to promote moderates. There are many Democratic registration-dominant districts that would likely send two Democratic candidates into the general election if turnout resembled anything close to the overall party breakdown by registration. However, in reality, the higher levels of turnout among Republicans means that Democrats are often fighting over a single spot in the general election and the candidate with the closest ties to the party establishment and interest groups has the inside track – which generally requires hewing closely to party orthodoxy.

Republicans have failed to recruit a top-tier challenger to Governor Jerry Brown and there are no internecine challenges to any of the Democratic statewide elected officials (save for the non-partisan Superintendent of Public Instruction). Neither U.S. Senator is up for re-election. While turnout in the 2010 general election was the highest in more than a decade due in large part to the massive spending by GOP gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman, this year it seems likelier to approach or even fall below the 51% turnout in 2002 when Gray Davis cruised to re-election in similar political circumstances.

That’s why U.S. Rep. John Garamendi (CA 3) openly considered running in the more Democratic district being vacated by Rep. George Miller (CA 11). Garamendi had won CA 3 in 2012 by a 54%-46% margin.

Certainly poor midterm turnout by Democrats is not unique to California, but it is striking to see the National Republican Congressional Committee on offense here when the new voter registration statistics find that Republicans account for only 29% of registered voters (down two points since 2012) while Democrats are 44%. Within the boundaries of what is now Democrat Scott Peters’ 52nd Congressional District seat in San Diego, 16,000 more Republicans voted in 2010 than Democrats. U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz has a similar district – 9,500 more Republicans voted within the boundaries of his district (CA 36) in 2010.

Democrats are fortunate that the State Republican Party has isolated itself from the vast majority of voters with its positions on Immigration Reform and Social Issues and has virtually no “bench” of strong potential candidates. If they successfully addressed those problems, Democrats would be hearing air raid sirens in all but Presidential elections, rather than seeing a warning light on the dashboard.


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