Are both political parties collapsing in California?

Over the past few years the release of Secretary of State data showing a drop in Republican registration has become a routine news story in California.

The trend line for the Grand Ol’ Party certainly isn’t a good one, but it’s not as singularly bad as overly simplistic headlines might suggest. While no party wants to see a decline in membership it’s helpful to look at what’s happening to both major parties to provide better context.

Republican registration has dropped 7% since 2006 and now sits at just over 27% of registered voters in the state. Republican voters tend to be older, whiter and more likely to vote than their Democrat and ‘No Party Preference’ counterparts.

Democrat registration has remained relatively flat during the same time frame, holding the line at 43% of registrants. On paper it would appear that this 15% point differential explains why California has become such a blue state recently.

Not so fast.

Much of the new Democrat registration has been comprised largely of young minority voters – most notably Latinos. These New Democrats are also reflective of todays growing California reality that is poorer than in previous generations. Unfortunately, for Democrats and for a healthy society, young poor people of color have an extremely low likelihood of voting. Youth as we know is not a good indicator for voting. As California data guru Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc. put it “In the year 2014, 18-19 year olds in California were more likely to be arrested than vote”.

So while Democrat registration has flat-lined, new Democrat registrants vote propensity is declining. This depressed voting tendency in California has become so acute that Republicans in the state are now mirroring other states in off-cycle elections and are actually picking up legislative seats during gubernatorial years. In 2014 California Republicans picked up Assembly seats for the first time in twenty years – obviously not because there are more Republicans, but because there’s a declining number of registered Democrats that actually vote.

This trend is particularly problematic for Democrats during gubernatorial elections but usually bounces back with a vengeance during Presidential years. 2016 is sizing up to continue this trend with increasing expectations that young, poor, minority voters will show up on a ‘World Cup’ schedule, that is, once every four years. If Democrat partisans take comfort in this trend they should note that this isn’t sustainable in the long term. It leads to a less engaged and reliable voter with increasingly depressed turnout – exactly what we’re experiencing today.

So why are Democrats so dominant in the state if fewer of them show up on Election Day? The answer can be found in the growing number of ‘No Party Preference’ voters that are far more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans (often times up to 75% more likely). This group is the fastest growing segment of the California electorate at 24% and are consciously electing not to be affiliated with either major party. While the Democrats are currently the beneficiaries of these voters, the very fact that they are deciding not to be Democrats suggests that they support them as a lesser of two evils. The surging numbers of these voters is a dark omen for partisans on both sides locked in a red vs. blue mentality.

So while it may be easier to write about the California GOP’s demise, in essence what we are witnessing is the decline of both major parties – Republicans in registration numbers and Democrats at the ballot booth.