California Democrats in good shape for now, but registration slide, party tensions loom large

03/09/2014 7:05 PM

03/10/2014 10:59 AM

As California Democrats decamped from their annual convention and dispersed from Los Angeles on Sunday, they looked ahead to the year’s elections from a deep-seated position of strength: They have been holding every statewide office and a supermajority in the Legislature, and challenges to the party’s highest-profile candidates, including Gov. Jerry Brown, are marginal at best.

Yet if 2014 promises to be another banner year for the California Democratic Party, its more distant future is less certain. As reliably liberal as California has become in recent years, the party is slowly losing – not gaining – registered voters as a proportion of the electorate.

Democratic registration, now at less than 44 percent, is a full percentage point lower than four years ago, and more than three percentage points lower than in 1997. Republican registration has sunk far further, to less than 29 percent, while the ranks of independent voters have swelled.

“You look at it, and people think both parties are full of crap,” John Burton, the Democratic state party chairman, said during a patio reception at the convention hotel, The Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites. “They have that point of view, some of them.”

The Democratic Party remains the dominant apparatus in California elections. It gives millions of dollars to its candidates, and an endorsement can be significant to Democrats competing against one another in a primary election.

But for any number of reasons – disillusionment with partisanship in Washington, the fragmentation of civic engagement and consumer behavior – new voters are increasingly eschewing major parties. Independents in California now compose nearly 21 percent of the electorate, up from just under 12 percent in 1997. Though Democrats or Republicans maintain a plurality of registered voters in every county, Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc. told convention attendees, “If you just look at the new registrations the partisan groups are losing the battle.”

The losses are felt nationwide. A McClatchy-Marist poll in December found that 41 percent of registered voters call themselves independent. A Gallup poll put the number at 42 percent.

“Parties don’t have a good image,” said Shaun Bowler, a professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside. “And all these fights that they have in D.C. are all terribly exciting, and I’m sure all the congressmen get into it in this ‘House of Cards’ sort of way, but it’s just disconnected from the rest of us.”

The withdrawal from party affiliation appears to have hurt the Democratic Party less than Republicans, with more independent voters identifying themselves as left-leaning. In California, 41 percent of independent voters view themselves as closer to the Democratic Party, according to a Public Policy Institute of California survey in August, while about three in 10 independents lean Republican.

For that reason, Burton said of the impact on Democratic registration, “I’m not concerned, because by and large they do vote Democratic, and I understand how people could well be disaffected with the way things are going in the country.”

But an independent voter who associates with the Democratic Party is not as reliable as one who belongs to it, said Bruce Cain, a political science professor at Stanford University.

“That’s telling you that they want to keep a little bit of distance from the party,” he said. “They should be concerned because it means that there’s something that’s holding them back from declaring themselves to be true-blue Democrats.”

In a statewide election in a future year, Cain said, “If the Republicans put the right kind of person up there and they pick the right moment in time, you could easily lose a Senate seat to the Republicans.”

Before his speech to delegates over the weekend, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said it is “incumbent on us to make the case” to prospective voters to register with the Democratic Party.

“The most effective case we can make is to talk about what’s happened in California over the last four years,” Steinberg said. “It’s an unequivocal success story. And I’m sorry, people forget how bad it was, how bad the deficit was and how the rest of the country saw California and its inability to govern.”

Democratic leaders repeated that message a number of times, celebrating not only their electoral victories in recent years, but an improving economy and the state’s more stable budget outlook.

Yet even within the party there are divisions, and the convention served to highlight them. While other delegates partook in an “evening of Cumbia and cocktails” or a “funkfest” billed as “the convention’s hottest hospitality dance party,” disillusioned members of the party assembled Friday night over coffee and desserts at a cafe on Flower Street.

“I wouldn’t say this is like an AA meeting, but this is an unusually sober oasis in the middle of a Democratic convention,” said Tom Hayden, the former California lawmaker and legendary activist. “People actually speaking and thinking. I don’t know how long this can last.”

Hayden’s audience consisted of about 150 activists, most of them liberal Democrats frustrated with party leaders they consider too moderate on issues including the environment and health care.

Groans went up when Hayden mentioned Brown, a relatively moderate Democrat, and grimaces met his prediction of losses nationally for the party in the midterm elections.

“Democrats are going to lose seriously this election,” Hayden said. “There is nothing, nothing, no propaganda, no television commercial, no expenditure of money, no brilliant oratory that can stop the downward voting numbers of young people and seniors in an off-year election.”

The Democrats, like Republicans, have made outreach to young voters a priority of their operations, and conventions can help parties forge ties with those voters.

Waiting in line for an event featuring Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and vocalists Wilson Phillips on Saturday night, Michael Morag, a senior physics major at the University of California, Los Angeles, high-fived a friend and said of the party’s registration losses, “We’ll win it back.”

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