There’s a certain smug quality about the California Democratic Party as it heads toward a primary election likely to produce more intra-party runoffs than ever before, possibly ranging right up to the ballot-topping race to succeed Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate.
But just because there may be as many as 30 runoffs pitting Democrat vs. Democrat this fall does not mean all is hunky-dory for this party, which before this spring’s big registration rush to vote for Bernard Sanders for president had gained only about 75,000 registered adherents since 2012, despite California’s significant population increases.
Yes, Democrats do enjoy a 17-point registration advantage over Republicans, one reason both major parties have considered this state “safe” for Democratic presidential candidates for two decades. But no, Democrats are not justified in crowing about it.
That’s because mid-May figures from Democratic Secretary of State Alex Padilla, California’s top election official, demonstrate that typically in recent years, when new voters register, they sign up as “no party preference (NPP),” refusing to identify with either party.
The rise in NPP registration from 21 percent of the total in 2012 to more than 24 percent today is unprecedented and represents an almost total rejection of both parties. Yes, Republicans have actually lost hundreds of thousands of their adherents to the NPP column, far more than Democrats have lost, but Democratic numbers are not growing much despite the party’s expensive and labor-intensive outreach and registration efforts.
This could have great meaning in the primary, where polls show that in the minds of many likely voters, Hillary Clinton represents the traditional Democratic Party, while rival Sanders has become the latest emblem of change.
The last time she ran for president – in 2008 – perceptions were similar, but NPP registration was far lower. So Mrs. Clinton won a big plurality in California that spring, enough to keep her going through months of losses to “hope-and-change” symbol Barack Obama in other states.
This time, California votes almost last, and as usual its vote will have only symbolic meaning. Since NPP voters can cast ballots in Democratic primaries, but not Republican ones, their impact will be felt far greater on the Democratic side.
Many of those NPP voters are young people only recently eligible to participate – the same kind of voters who gave energy and manpower to Obama’s campaigns. They could create a stark generational split in the Democratic vote.
The trick for Democrats this fall will be getting those young NPP voters to turn out again in November.
Academic studies indicate that it’s highly unlikely the new voters would go Republican in the fall, as very few voters switch parties during an election year even if the candidate they liked in the primary has lost. But they might stay home unless Mrs. Clinton can motivate them in a way she has not so far.
So Democrats appear just as flummoxed by the NPP phenomenon as Republicans. Both parties sometimes react to the reluctance of youths to choose a party by reminding new voters of what happened many years ago.
Mrs. Clinton, for example, has difficulty comprehending that feminist appeals have not worked well with young women voters, who take for granted the status she helped win for them via her efforts in the 1970s and ‘80s, long before she became a national figure.
Younger voters, male and female, tell poll takers they are more interested in what they believe a Democrat might do for them in the next few years. This message from youth, both registered Democrats and those with no party preference, is one reason Mrs. Clinton this year has adopted a more strongly liberal tone than ever before. She strongly stresses immigration reform, increased wages and voting rights.
None of that is likely to change the pattern of new voters steering clear of all political parties. Which means Democrats can’t be smug, any more than the shrinking GOP should be depressed. For the tide moving toward no party preference is not yet fully understood by either party, and if they make wrong moves, the errors could redound for years.