Parties Shrink, Races Tighten in Final 2014 California Voter Data

Voting sign. (John Myers/KQED)

Political parties continue to shrink in California, with voters who state no party preference edging ever closer to being the second-largest subset of the state's overall electorate.

Final registration data on Friday afternoon show 17.8 million registered voters in the Golden State -- about 169,000 more voters than in the last pre-election report six weeks ago. Republicans continue to shrink in relative size, now representing 28.1 percent of the electorate; the last time any GOP candidate won a statewide office, in 2006, the party represented 34.3 percent of the electorate.

In truth, both parties continue to shrink in California -- though Democrats have done so more slowly, and continue to be the dominant group. Unaffiliated voters, those with no stated party preference, are now close to accounting for one in four who are registered to cast ballots.

But registration does not necessarily translate into political power; after all, elections are decided by those who actually show up to vote. This week's nonpartisan Field Poll used a model that's consistent with what many political insiders believe -- namely, that Democrats and independents seem less motivated to vote on Nov. 4 than are Republicans.

Field's survey assumes an electorate next week that is 34 percent Republican, 6 points higher than actual GOP registration.  The survey model also concluded that self-described conservative voters will outnumber liberals, 31 percent to 28 percent.

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How, if at all, that impacts statewide races is unclear.  But if those models hold true for races on the legislative and congressional level, Democrats could struggle to win tight contests. One bit of data, the return of absentee ballots, offers a glimpse into voter enthusiasm -- or apathy -- in the final days of the election.

In the hotly contested congressional race outside Sacramento, Democrats continue to outnumber Republicans by a couple of percentage points -- which should be good news for freshman U.S. Rep. Ami Bera (D-Elk Grove) in his battle against GOP congressman Doug Ose. But as of Thursday, research from the bipartisan firm Political Data Inc. shows that Republicans hold a 2 percentage point lead in vote-by-mail ballots actually cast, and that Latino and Asian voters are also casting early ballots in numbers lower than their registration. That could, of course, reverse course on Election Day. But it may be one reason why a national political handicapping scorecard has moved the Democratically-controlled seat in Congress to "leans Republican."

An even more troubling race for Democrats, using the vote-by-mail data, is in San Diego -- where incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego) is in a heated battle against GOP challenger Carl DeMaio. Republicans have about a 1-point voter registration advantage there, but Political Data Inc. reporting of actual votes shows GOP ballots are running ahead of Democratic ballots returned by 9 points.

The statewide registration report can also can miss the intensity by which the political parties are registering voters in these final days, a key sign of how campaigns are operating. In the Bera-Ose race, just about 6,000 new voters were registered in the last month of registration, which ended this week. Compare that with 2012, where more than 19,000 new voters were registered in the district in that same time period.

Paul Mitchell, Political Data's vice president, calls that kind of voter registration effort "anemic," and one that can cripple what might otherwise be a competitive race.

June's statewide primary resulted in the lowest voter turnout in state history. And few expect Tuesday's overall turnout -- absentee and polling place combined -- to be high, given the lack of competitive statewide races to help motivate voters to cast a ballot.