Party foul: Voters still losing interest

With the 2006 primary election just days away, Sacramento insiders and
political junkies throughout the state are focusing on California’s campaign
battlefield. There are the tracking polls, the daily financial filings, the
visible give-and-take in the governor’s race and the invisible give-and-take
in the down-ballot statewide battles. There are the skirmishes between the
so-called mods and libs in a handful of Democratic legislative races.
But lost in this play-by-play are bigger trends that are dramatically and
irrevocably reshaping the political landscape in California.

So, just to give our chattering class something to talk about on June 8,
after they’ve spent June 7 ascribing meaning to the votes cast on June 6,
here are three important trends worth considering.

First, the two major parties have been losing significant market share for
at least 15 years. If you want to project where this will take us, consider
the fate of the big three American car manufacturers.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the generation that fought in World War II
consisted of Ford families and General Motors families and Chrysler
families. But when their offspring, the baby boomers, entered the car-buying
market, they looked elsewhere, and over time cars manufactured in Japan and
Europe won their allegiance.

Boomers, it turned out, like lots of choices. And boomers are determined to
have their needs met. When the big three would not accommodate the
preferences of the boomers, the boomers took their business elsewhere. The
children of the boomers share that same preference.

What does all this have to do with California politics? As George Skelton
recently noted in his Los Angeles Times column, the Democrats’ market share
has dropped from 53 percent in 1980 and 49 percent in 1994 to 43 percent
today. The Republicans’ market share has dropped from 37 percent in 1994 to
less than 35 percent today. On the other hand, decline to state has
increased from 10 percent in 1994 to more than 18 percent today. Add in
third parties, and almost 23 percent of California voters are non-Democrat,
non-Republicans. The Public Policy Institute of California, Skelton noted,
says that 40 percent of 18- to 24-year-old voters fall into that category.

The Democrat-Republican duopoly will continue to enjoy the protection of
significant barriers to entry for new parties. But unless the two major
parties figure out a way to accommodate this fundamental shift in voter
attitudes, ultimately they will find themselves no longer in charge.

Second, the 2003 gubernatorial recall illustrates a “we want what we want
and we want it now” attitude that may accelerate the loosening hold of the
two major parties. Consider that in November 2002, the voters chose Gray
Davis for a second term, but by spring of the following year a significant
number were unwilling to live with that choice and demanded a “do over.”

Davis was hardly the first politician to fall out of favor soon after an
election. But ours is not a parliamentary system. Historically, when voters
in this country elect someone to serve a fixed term of two, four or six
years, they have been expected to tolerate the consequences. That may no
longer be the case.

Blame it on the remote control. Don’t like what you see in front of you?
Press a little button and it’s gone in a flash. Our attention spans shrink,
our willingness to endure things not entirely to our liking diminishes.

Third, the incredible advances in technology that are changing every aspect
of our day-to-day lives are largely ignored in the political arena. That
cannot last. Voters consume information from an incredible number of
sources. But political campaigns and officeholders still rely on
snail-mailed flyers to junk-filled mailboxes, television ads watched by
fewer and fewer viewers, and phone calls met most of the time by an
answering device. Voters conduct much of their commercial business online
and at ATMs. But, with few exceptions, the only way to vote is in person or
by filling out and mailing a paper ballot.

Political consultants have gotten away with being the least innovative
marketers in America for a long time. A small group of activists have,
legitimately or otherwise, sabotaged the transition to electronic voting. If
the election process was a bank, it would be out of business by now for lack
of customers. The technology exists to make voting interesting and
accessible. Until that technology is in place, don’t expect turnout to
increase. And until political marketers find a way to engage voters, expect
them to grow increasingly apathetic.
This, then, is a brief look at the “big picture.” It’s what happens when the
political insiders step outside of their box. Scary? Intriguing? Inevitable.

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