By Thomas D. Elias
Democrats are riding high in California these days, holding supermajorities of more than two-thirds in both houses of the state Legislature and every statewide office, from governor down to treasurer.
But while they still enjoy a registration margin of 14.3 percent over Republicans, there’s strong evidence they don’t understand the future of the state’s politics any more than the GOP.
That’s clear from the voter registration numbers racked up last fall, figures which only recently have undergone full analysis.
If the actions of young voters, those in the 18-24 age bracket, are harbingers of the future, the newest figures indicate voters will increasingly want politicians independent of super-strong party commitments on either side. Rather, they’ll want candidates not slavishly devoted to the “no new taxes” pledges signed by almost all Republicans or the strictly pro-union agenda followed by most Democrats.
Here are some of the numbers, as analyzed in a new UC Davis study:
Of the 244,049 new California youth registrants in 2012, 63 percent - or 154,054 - signed up online after Internet registration became available in late September, barely a month before the registration deadline.
Those youth registrations brought voter signups in the age group to fully 14 percent higher than in 2008, when Democrats led by Barack Obama staged a highly-touted “youth campaign.” By contrast, there was only a two percent overall registration rise. This suggests younger Californians - and by extension, younger Americans - are not nearly as apathetic as some of their elders have believed, but are so busy with a combination of education and work that they need a more convenient way to sign up than traditional paper-centered methods.
Young voters made up 30 percent of all those registering online last fall, with Democrats drawing 47.5 percent of them. Youth voters are the only group among whom Democrats draw more than 40 percent, meaning that much of that party’s current advantage lies with new or fairly new voters.
About 20 percent of youth voters registered with no party preference, roughly equal to the overall voting public. Independents registering last year numbered almost exactly the same as Republicans.
Taken together, these numbers continue two trends: Democrats are registering almost twice as many new voters of all ages as Republicans, showing that the GOP is unable or unwilling to adjust to the social and ideological preferences of an increasing majority of Californians.
But Democrats have no reason to be smug. For the longer Californians stay registered as voters, the less loyal they are to that party, too.
All of which explains why changes like the “top two” primary system, adopted via ballot initiative in 2010 and used for the first time last year, are so popular. Anything depriving the major parties of some influence or promising more independent politicians will draw significant, often majority, support here.
That might mean the handwriting is on the wall for both major parties. But no one knows what might replace them if their significance ever reduces to levels far below where it is now. For sure, some new organizing methods would arise in the Legislature.
What’s more, no declared independent has won election to statewide office in the modern era. This means the parties are far from dead, and the Democrats’ registration numbers among the young mean that if they demonstrate some independence, they can avoid becoming irrelevant.
But independence on the part of lawmakers would stick in the craw of legislative leaders, who gather money from lobbyists and interest groups and often pass it on to other candidates more in need of campaign dollars, thus solidifying their clout and leadership positions.
The tide of no-party-preference registrants, now at about 21 percent of all voters, also means Republicans have hope, if they show they’re willing to deviate from longtime stances like opposition to gun control, abortion and all new taxation.
Party activists have so far been unwilling to countenance anything like that, opting to lose consistently rather than bend their principles. This may eventually make the GOP the new Whigs, a once-major party that became insignificant in the 1850s.
But the independents also threaten Democratic discipline, for if they perceive that party’s officeholders as doctrinaire leftists and union toadies, they can easily find other people to back in today’s open primaries and subsequent general elections.
All of which means neither party really understands what’s going on in California’s political thinking right now. Democrats come closer, so they’re doing better than Republicans, but the fact that the number of independent voters has doubled in the last 15 years indicates neither party is truly in tune with modern California.
Email Thomas Elias at email@example.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net.