As primary election looms, numbers favor Dems, DTS

California’s shifting political landscape is reflected in voter-registration statistics that show a rising number of decline-to-state voters and a dominance of Democrats, continuing the trend that has marked the electorate since at least the early 1990s.

The final, updated registration figures, the 15-day report, will be released June 4 by the secretary of state, four days before the primary election.

But the most recent numbers, the 60-day report compiled last month, show an electorate in transition and dissatisfied with the major parties. Over time, the losses in registration for both parties are steadily increasing.

Of the 24.4 million people eligible to vote in California, only about 16.9 million – 72 percent – have actually registered. Of those who registered, some 7.53 million identified themselves as Democrats, 5.2 million said they were Republicans and 3.4 million, or 20 percent of the electorate, declined to state their preferences.

These decline-to-state, or DTS, voters are the wild card in an election.  Under state law, DTS voters can choose which party’s primary they want to participate in.

On paper, their numbers are huge – a fifth of all voters.  But in reality, they tend to be far smaller, experts say – particulary in primary elections.

“It’s hard to determine who among the decline-to-state voters will really turn out,” said strategist Jason Kinney, who handles S.F. Mayor Gavin Newsom’s run for lieutenant governor.

“What we’re seeing is a much lower turnout of decline-to-states who are actually voting.

“Generally speaking,” he added, “you may see an overweighting of the decline-to-state voters in the primary.”

Jeff Randle, a ranking member of Republican Meg Whitman’s campaign for governor, generally agreed, estimating that the DTS turnout could be 8 percent, or even less.

That means his campaign has to work hard to get them. “We are taking advantage of every possible voter contact,” he said. “We’re contacting those decline-to-states who have a history of voting in the Republican primaries.”

The latest available numbers are roughly the same as before last year’s May special election.

In September 2009, voter profiles published by the Public Policy Institute of  California noted that party affiliation appeared stronger for Democrats than Republicans. Two-thirds of Democrats described themselves as strongly affiliated with their party; on the Republican side, that number was 57 percent.

The PPIC report also noted that more than half of California Democrats live in Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay area, as do the majority of independents. Most Republicans live in San Diego/Orange counties, the Central Valley and Los Angeles.

 Democrats currently represent 44.6 percent of the electorate, Republicans are at 30.8 percent and 20.1 percent declined to state. Of the minor parties, the American Independent Party is the largest, with 390,375 registrants, or 2.34 percent, followed by the Green Party with 112,136 voters. The Libertarian Party has about 85,560 registrants, while the Peace and Freedom Party has 56,189.

During the past four statewide elections, Democratic registration has declined steadily, from 48.9 percent in 1994 to 46.8 percent in 1998 to 45.2 percent four years later and to a low of 42.7 percent in 2006. The uptick in Democratic registration since 2006 has been attributed, in part, to the 2008 presidential campaign that resulted in the election of Democrat Barack Obama.

Despite the Democratic declines, however, Republican registration has dropped even more dramatically, widening the gap between Democratic and Republican registration.

The pre-primary election registration report in 1994 showed Republicans with 37.1 percent. By 1998, they had lost two percentage points, and they remained relatively flat through 2006. But between 2006 and the current election cycle, they dropped four points – the largest cycle-to-cycle drop in 16 years.

The increase in decline-to-state voters shows that people are fleeing both major parties. The question is, how will they vote on Election Day? Both parties are wooing them. Given the state’s history of lackluster turnout, particularly in primary elections, both parties see attracting DTS voters as fundamental.

Republicans believe DTS and independent voters are drifting away from Democrats, citing studies that show the number of DTS voters who intend to vote Democratic in June has remained relatively flat in recent years, while the preference for the GOP has increased. During the past six months, the percentage of such voters who will ask for a Democratic Party ballot fell from more than 40 percent to less than 38 percent. At the same time, decline-to-state voters’ desire to vote on the Republican ballot jumped from less than 20 percent to more than 30 percent, the party noted.

On paper, at least, the numbers favor Democrats – but not dramatically.

When asked about preferences, 20 percent of decline-to-state voters said they planned to vote in the Democratic primary, while 12 percent said they would cast ballots in the GOP primary. But fully half of the DTS voters said they would ask for a nonpartisan ballot, and nearly one in five – 17 percent – said they were unsure.

The nature of DTS voters can be hard to pin down. Some are liberal Democrats who think their party isn’t liberal enough, some are conservative Republicans who think their party hasn’t moved far enough to the right. Others, on both sides, trend toward the middle.

“They tend to be late deciders who don’t pay that close attention to political issues,” said Ray McNally, a veteran Capitol political strategist. “Decline-to-state voters may be disillusioned with both parties. They like the sense of independence they have. They tend to be more fiscally conservative or conservative on public safety, or more socially moderate, typically.”

 “It’s situational. It depends on the atmospherics of the moment. But if you’re a Republican running for statewide office, you have to get a big portion of the decline-to-states or you’re going to lose. They are the key to victory.”

In 2006, Gov. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, defeated Democratic contender Phil Angelides in part because Schwarzenegger held his Republican base and wooed a big chunk of independents. Two years later, Barack Obama, a Democrat, won because he expanded his Democratic base and attracted a large number of independents.

Attracting DTS voters is crucial, difficult, and costly, strategists agree.

“You can spend a lot of resources trying to convince decline-to-state (to join a party), but it’s far more efficient to know more about them and why they vote. In 2006, Schwarzenegger won Riverside and San Bernardino. Two years later, Obama won them both,” said Sacramento political strategist Matt Rexroad.

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