Even before Californians at last start marking absentee ballots this month or begin to think about heading to the polls for the June primary election, many onetime Republicans had already voted with their feet.
Just over 400,000 of them, to be precise. That’s how many fewer Californians were registered as Republicans early this spring compared to eight years ago. By contrast, Democrats gained about 9,000 voters, while the no-party-preference category was up more than 520,000.
And although about 850,000 new voters have registered in the last few months, unofficial reports indicate they predominantly signed up as Democrats or without party preference. How much of this was due to enthusiasm for presidential candidate Bernard Sanders is anyone’s guess.
But increasing numbers of Californians just won’t call themselves Republicans. Sure, many so-called independents will back GOP candidates: The California Field Poll, for example, shows about 40 percent will steadily vote Republican, with Democrats getting a slightly larger share and almost 20 percent of those with no stated party preference remaining true swing voters.
In no way can that make up for the Democrats’ steadily increasing edge in the state, now a margin of almost 16 percent over the GOP.
In fact, Republicans, with an all-time low of 27.6 percent of registered voters in their column in March, are suddenly in danger of becoming the third choice of California voters, behind Democrats and no-preference, which checked in this spring with 24 percent of registrants.
Demographics explain much of the shift. Latinos now are the population plurality in California at about 38 percent of all residents. They and Asian-Americans form the two fastest-growing ethnic voter blocs. This means voters who physically go to the polls are less likely than ever to encounter black or white faces there, and more likely to see brown and ochre ones.
With these demographics, all it takes to explain the GOP’s plight is a look at the party platform, readily available on the Ballotpedia website (https://ballotpedia.org/Republican_Party_of_California).
In a state where the Latino plurality in every poll indicates it considers immigration amnesty the top issue, the GOP platform says, “We support devoting more resources to border control and increasing penalties for overstaying visas.” Not a word about enabling undocumented immigrants to seek citizenship or legalization.
The same polls show women voters of all demographic groups care deeply about abortion choices and birth control. But state Republicans tell them they’re “the party that protects innocent life because we believe life begins at conception and ends at natural death.”
Gun control is another popular cause in California, but the GOP calls for “elimination of waiting periods to purchase firearms…” And the party manifesto seems to proclaim it wants higher health care costs: “We support restricting Medicaid to restrict elective, medically unnecessary surgeries while increasing the compensation to doctors and hospitals for necessary surgeries and other treatments.” Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin might call whatever committee decides which surgeries to fund or not a “death panel.”
It adds up to a party that’s seriously out of step with the majority of voters its candidates seek to represent.
There’s a warning here for Democrats, too: Their legislators on both state and federal levels must continue backing causes popular with voters or they could become as passé as the GOP, now threatened with irrelevance.
This trend began long before the current top two primary system arrived in 2010, allowing all voters to go for any candidate they like in primary elections other than those for president, regardless of party. In some ways, it has made party organizations almost irrelevant, as runoff elections often feature two candidates from the same party, with slightly different beliefs and priorities.
Meanwhile, Republicans have not carried California in presidential election since 1988, after a 36-year stretch in which they only lost this state once, when Barry Goldwater ran in 1964. Democrats, despite strenuous efforts to sign up new voters, have not changed their share of the electorate by more than 2 percent in the last decade.
Which means it’s no time for them to be smug, but it is high time for Republicans to realize they can no longer expect to remain significant so long as they insist on thumbing their noses at the attitudes of the vast majority of Californians.