Who Wins the Races in CA Depends on the “Turnout Game”

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Ph.D., is retired Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California and co-creator of the podcast Inside Golden State Politics

THIS JUST IN! The 2020 Presidential election will come down to turnout—how large it is and who shows up.

And, even in the deep blue Golden State, voter turnout in both the primary and the general elections will impact not only the Presidential race, but contests from ballot propositions down to local offices. In California, who turns out—and why—can help shape the fate of policy, as well as politicians.

There’s only one statewide proposition on the primary ballot. Proposition 13—no relation to THE Proposition 13 of 1978, which ignited a nationwide tax revolt. This one spends money. It authorizes $15 billion in bonds for construction and modernization of public education facilities.

Let’s do the turnout math.

According to a recent PPIC survey, 51 percent of likely voters support the measure, 42 percent oppose, and 8 percent are undecided. Support from Democratic likely voters (69%) is significantly higher than support from independents (47%) and Republicans (24%). Backing is higher among likely voters age 18 to 34 (81%) than among older (age 55+) voters (45%).

Geographically, support is substantially higher in the San Francisco Bay Area (62%) and in Los Angeles (55%). Latino likely voters (62%) are more likely than whites (42%) to support Prop. 13, as are likely voters in other racial/ethnic groups (61 %).

Now let’s extrapolate!

The Democratic Presidential primary is where the action is. And there’s no contested Republican Presidential primary at the top of the California ballot.

Ergo, advantage Democrats—but only if Democrats turn out in numbers large enough. In primary elections, the turnout tends to be older, more conservative, less diverse, and more adverse to increased government spending (looking much like Republicans).

And in November? The PPIC survey shows Bernie Sanders has opened a big lead (32%) over second-place Joe Biden (14%) in the state’s Democratic primary.

Let’s pretend the Presidential race is between Sanders and the GOP incumbent, Donald Trump.

Turnout will be critical in the reelection campaigns of several of California’s newly minted Congressmembers, whose upset of GOP incumbents helped Democrats take control of the House.

And then there’s the hot L.A. County District Attorney race. Nominally non-partisan, it’s become a shadow Democratic primary. It pits two-term incumbent Jackie Lacey against two more “progressive” challengers, former San Francisco D.A. George Gascon, endorsed by the L.A. County Democratic Party, and Rachel Rossi, a former public defender who, observed the L.A. Times, “tacks a bit to Gascon’s left.”

This campaign echoes the split within the national Democratic Party. Opined the L.A. Times, “Lacey’s caution, once comforting, now sometimes looks more like resistance to change.” Sound familiar?

Berniecrats could make a difference here; if not in the primary—although votes for the “progressive” candidates could deny Lacey the majority of votes needed to win reelection in March.

Whether there’s a November run-off with Sanders on top of the Democratic ticket—or whether there’s NOT–and many of his supporters stay home in November, as they did in 2016—the make-up of voter turnout could influence the outcome of this “non-partisan,” local race, as well.

According to California’s Secretary of State, among the propositions eligible for the general election ballot is an amendment to the “REAL” Proposition 13. It would “require [most] commercial and industrial properties to be taxed based on their market value.” (Now both residential and commercial properties are assessed based on the purchase price).

The supporters of this “split roll initiative” include innumerable Democrats, from Presidential candidates to state lawmakers and local officials. Long-time opponents of meddling with Prop. 13, including several business associations, are opposed.

What might be the impact of voter turnout on this initiative? Or of the initiative on turnout?

I could go on and on playing the Turnout Game. But I won’t.

Let me end with some more questions to ponder: In March, will MAGA Nation (not so big a nation in California) turn out in large numbers, to show their fealty to their Dear Leader? Or, since Trump lacks any real opponents on the ballot, will his voters just stay home?

Will Democrats, and Never Trumpers of all stripes, storm the ballot box? Will California’s top-two primary, resuscitate the state’s GOP for November’s down-ballot races, or will an overwhelming Democratic turnout in March conclusively cut the party off at the knees?

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