CA120: Numbers showing sparse turnout for the primary

Signs at a site in San Francisco show the way to the polls. (Photo: Kevin McGovern, via Shutterstock)

Going into this gubernatorial primary election, one could have rightly expected to see a pretty good turnout.  There are more than 30 open legislative seats for the first time in nearly a decade and competitive congressional races after the shakeup of redistricting.

Statewide contests, including one for governor that netted over 60% turnout in last year’s recall election, head the ticket, and voters get to vote for U.S. Senate — not just once, but twice!

Add to this the impact of California’s progressive election reforms, which have pushed registration to a record 22 million voters, implemented a permanent system of mailing ballots to all voters and even removed the requirement that they pay postage when returning them.

We could be justified in thinking these reforms mean we won’t again see an election with the 25% turnout that we saw in the 2014 gubernatorial primary.

For those uncomfortable with voting by mail, the state has thousands of drop-boxes – and now you don’t even need to use a drop-box in your own county, any one will do. If voters are so disengaged that they aren’t getting that ballot in, volunteers or neighbors can collect and return it for them. And voters can still go to the polls on Election Day.

These reforms may not result in an 80% turnout, such as we’ve seen in presidential general elections, but they have, one would expect, set a higher floor for a low turnout election.

We could be justified in thinking these reforms mean we won’t again see an election with the 25% turnout that we saw in the 2014 gubernatorial primary.

But with just a few days to go, we were at just 13% total turnout statewide. In some key battlegrounds, like the hot L.A. Mayor’s race, turnout is even lower at just 10% —  despite wall-to-wall advertising, texting, phoning and tens of millions of dollars being spent to try and persuade those voters.

So, what does a low turnout mean?

First, it means that the electorate casting ballots isn’t representative of the state population as a whole.  And for campaigns it means that they better be more focused with their targeting, lest they spend all their money on people who aren’t voting.

And, given the volatility of low-turnout elections and campaigns, those of us observing these races should be braced for some surprises.

Effectively, we have given one-seventh of the population, and one quarter of the registered voters, the majority voting power among votes cast.

Those following the Early Vote Tracker have seen how a low turnout election impacts the composition of voters who will actually be deciding these elections. Age and ethnicity of the voters who have returned their ballots so far is striking.

Seniors are only 13% of the state’s population, but 25% of those registered, and 51% of those who have returned their ballots in this election.  Effectively, we have given one-seventh of the population, and one quarter of the registered voters, the majority voting power among votes cast.

At the other end of the spectrum, those aged 18-34 are 27% of voters and but are only 10% of the ballots returned so far.

This means, while there are actually more Gen Z and Millennials on the voter rolls than seniors, for every one under 35 years old that has voted, there are five seniors who have countered.

In terms of turnout to date, seniors are already at 29% turnout while younger voters are at just 5%.

Low turnout elections in this state decimate the idea that our elected officials are put there by people who are truly representative of our diversity, in a number of ways.

Looking at the ethnicity of the state, we know that Latinos are the plurality of California’s total population at over 40%, but they are only 27% of the registered voters and 15% of those who have returned a ballot.

To put that in perspective, the 27% Latino figure for registration matches the percentage of the state that was Latino in the 1990 census.  The 15% representation among votes cast is similar to the share of the California population that was Latino in the 1970 census – more than 50 years ago!

Low turnout elections in this state decimate the idea that our elected officials are put there by people who are truly representative of our diversity, in a number of ways.  There are even stark regional differences, with the Bay Area having a third fewer voters than L.A. County, but more actual votes cast.

We have seen several legislative contests in which most prognosticators are expecting a Democrat-vs.-Democrat runoff, but where the Republican could slip in to the second spot

The fact that a small portion of the electorate is deciding these races puts more emphasis on good, cost-effective campaigning – which starts with good data.

In this election you may see just over a quarter of the electorate casting ballots. So, if you were sending a mailer to each voter, which costs a dollar each, you are effectively spending four dollars per mailer.  The three mailers to individuals who aren’t going to vote are just wasted.  Targeting those same dollars to voters with a history of voting by mail, particularly those who consistently vote early, can make the spending twice as effective, essentially cutting in half the cost of voter contact.

While the state is now only at 13% voted, a universe of voters who are considered likely is already over 25% turnout, and who have a history of having voted early by mail is at 50%.  The value of targeting goes up significantly as the turnout in an election goes down.

For those of us watching, and the candidates themselves, there should be an awareness that these low turnout elections are more volatile.

Since ballots were mailed, Capitol Weekly has been conducting polling among those voters who returned their ballots.  These surveys and similar surveys in the coming general election allow us to dive in a bit deeper to how voters are making their choices and how opinions are changing over time.

In this survey we have seen several legislative contests in which most prognosticators are expecting a Democrat-vs.-Democrat runoff, but where the Republican could slip in to the second spot, effectively closing out the election in some districts that observers are expecting to be hotly contested intra-party general elections.

Some of the races to watch:

Assembly District 6: Incumbent Democrat Kevin McCarty is facing a challenge from Democrat Josh Pane, but Republican Cathy Cook, one of two Republicans on the ballot, appears to be capturing most of the conservative votes and could slip into the second spot.

Assembly District 10: Democratic Sacramento City Councilmember Eric Guerra is expected to face off against Democratic Elk Grove Councilmember Stephanie Nguyen, but with four Democrats and just one Republican, this district that gave 30% to Trump in 2020 and 34% to Cox in the 2018 General, could end up with the top vote-getting Democrat heading into the general with the sole Republican on the ballot.

Assembly District 21: In this safe Democratic San Mateo district, Diane Papan, daughter of former Assemblymember Lou Papan, and a Democratic Councilmember from the city of San Mateo is looking to face off against Giselle Hale, a Democratic councilwoman from Redwood City. The district is only 14% Republican, but there is a chance that composition of the primary — five-Democrats one Republican —  could allow it to be decided in June.

Assembly District 22: Democrat Chad Condit, son of former Congressman Gary Condit, is aiming for a runoff against Democratic Attorney Jessica Self. These two Democrats are facing four Republican challengers, and Republican Sherriff Sergeant Juan Alanis could come in and spoil the party.  This is a district where Democrats have a 7-point registration advantage, but a narrower 1-2 point advantage in election outcomes, such as the 2018 gubernatorial election of 2020 presidential contest. If Republican Alanis makes the runoff it could be one of a handful of potential swing seats in November.

Assembly District 34: Two Republican incumbents, Tom Lackey and Thurston Smith are facing each other in what could be an intra-party Republican runoff, but it seems clear that this will be spoiled by Democrat Rita Ramirez Dean who should not only make the runoff, but could be the top vote getter.

Assembly District 40: Incumbent Republican Suzette Valladares was one of the losers in the redistricting battles as her district became much more Democratic, but it could be worse if the two Democrats, Annie Cho and Pilar Schiavo manage to split the vote fairly evenly and close the door to the November runoff.

Senate District 4: Post-redistricting, this inland Central Valley / NorCal seat was seen as a good composition for Republicans, particularly as it is numbered to come up in a gubernatorial year.  It voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, and Cox in 2018.  However, Republicans could have a math problem with six from their party splitting up the vote, and allowing, potentially, Democrats Marie Alvarado Gil and Tim Robertson to slip into the runoff.

Senate District 16: Incumbent Senator Democrat Melissa Hurtado is facing a challenge from Democratic former Assemblywoman Nicole Parra, but a local Republican farmer, David Shepard, could spoil the party.

Congressional District 42: The much-awaited Garcia vs. Garcia battle, pitting the Democratic Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia against Democratic Assemblywoman Christina Garcia, could be spoiled if the sole Republican on the Ballot, John Briscoe, makes the runoff.  This is probably the most unlikely of all of these potential spoilers, given that the district is only 16% Republican and gave 74% of its vote to Biden in 2020. But with six Democrats and just one Republican, a hard-charging campaign by the Long Beach mayor could make it happen. This district has been critically low in turnout, at just 8% so far.  But it has also been imbalanced, with 11% turnout in the Long Beach portion, and only 6% in the southeast cities that form the northern half of the district.

In addition to these legislative and congressional races, there is a potential for topsy-turvy results in the statewide contests.

In the tightly contested race for state controller, all eyes have been on Lanhee Chen, the sole Republican on the ballot, but our tracking has consistently shown Democrat Yvonne Yiu as the top vote getter, with Democrat Malia Cohen improving in the closing days.  It is likely that a late Republican in-person surge would give Chen the top spot, but many observers may be surprised if Yiu beats her three -better known and current office-holding challengers in Cohen and state Sen. Steve Glazer and Los Angeles Controller Ron Galperin.

The Attorney General’s race has little drama at the top of the ticket, with incumbent Rob Bonta likely to take a 40-to-50-point win over his closest challenger, but there has been plenty of drama regarding which opponent will make the second spot. Most pundits were initially focused on Republican-turned-independent Anne Marie Schubert, with a handful of us, myself included, panning the idea that an independent could make the runoff if there was an actual Republican on the ballot.  But then things got interesting as the Republican Party endorsed Nathan Hochman and IE money from Bonta’s supporters came in to prop up Republican Eric Early.  The tracking survey has these two tied.  Tellingly, a survey question we posed to Republicans was this:  “In a primary election, would you be more likely to support a candidate endorsed by the Republican Party or one endorsed by Former President Donald Trump?” The result was also tied.  While Early hasn’t earned the Trump endorsement, that’s essentially the campaign being waged – a Republican establishment candidate vs a Trump Republican, with the potential for an independent, former Republican to split up the middle.

The race for Insurance Commissioner does appear to be headed to a runoff between Democratic incumbent Ricardo Lara and challenger Democratic Assemblymember Marc Levine.  The two things to watch for are if Lara breaks 50%, which is likely, and what his lead is over Levine.  That may determine how much funding goes into the November election for this contest as the general election should have a much higher Latino turnout, and a challenge from the left by Levine may not capture any significant cross-over Republican votes.

In Los Angeles, the low turnout is making for a very interesting Mayoral contest with the latest UC Berkeley poll showing Democratic former Assembly Speaker, Congresswoman Karen Bass leading Democrat Rick Caruso by a 6-point margin.

Our tracking showed Caruso with a significant lead for the first few weeks of voting, but a shift has occurred in the past several days, pushing Bass ahead, nearly matching the Berkeley results.  Late voting Republicans who are holding on to their ballots to vote in person could make the difference. We have seen the in-person voting in L.A. skew more Republican than mailed votes, but there were only 3,250 in person ballots out of 213,000 total returns prior to the final weekend of voting.

Finally, for anyone expecting a surprise in the gubernatorial contest, the tracking shows Governor Newsom with a massive lead over Republican state Sen. Brian Dahle, with no other challengers in double digits.

Editor’s Note: Paul Mitchell, a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly, is the creator of the CA120 column, vice president of Political Data and owner of Redistricting Partners, a political strategy firm.

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