California Demographic Breakdown: Are Republicans Really Fading, or is President Obama and the Democratic Brand Just More Popular Right Now?

(The article was co-authored by Matthew Jason.)

This is the second in a series of blog entries regarding specific voter demographics in California based on a merge of all the statewide interviews conducted by the California Office of Public Opinion Strategies going back to the beginning on 2004. This merge includes a total of over 31,000 statewide interviews.

You may have seen the numerous media reports this year about how Republican Registration is plummeting in California and how the Grand Old Party will soon no longer be a viable alternative in the state. If you read it in the paper or see it on the internet, it must be true, right? Wrong. There was a slight decrease in Republican Registration in California between the 2006 general election and the 2008 general election. According to the official Secretary of State reports of registration, there were 8,292 less Republican Voters at election time in 2008.

While it is always troubling to see a decline in Republican Registration, let’s look at some other numbers to put this loss in perspective. During the same two year period, Democratic Registration increased by over 955,000 and Decline to State Registration increased by more than 476,000. No, there were not any extra zeros included by accident. Even if every one of the Republican defections went to the Democrats or became a Decline to State Voter, this would represent only the tiniest fraction of their gains.

What California experienced during this last campaign cycle was not a Republican collapse. The Republican Party in California was simply stagnant during a campaign season which saw the very modest effort from the McCain Campaign. Meanwhile, the voter registration efforts undertaken by the Democratic Party and the Clinton and Obama Campaigns specifically were extremely impressive. When these two circumstances converged, we saw some unique outcomes like President Obama outpolling McCain in eight Republican-held Congressional Districts in the state, but this odd occurrence hardly signals the collapse of the Republican Party.

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We use the California Voter File for almost all of our research in California, and it tells us what party voters are registered with, but we traditionally ask an additional question about how the respondents usually vote on election day. Our recent data merge includes more than 27,000 voters who have been asked this question on a statewide survey over the last five years. Twenty-nine percent (29%) of them said they always vote Republican and thirty-five percent (35%) of them said they always vote Democratic. The more interesting number is the thirty-three percent (33%) who were not loyal to either major party in their response to this question. We call this group the “swing” voters, and they are the ones who decide who wins in California.

Looking at the trend among these “swing” voters, it is clear that is has become more popular over the last few years to express your loyalty to the Democrats. We would expect nothing less, especially as President Bush became less popular and it became more and more clear that the Democrats would be the party in power when election day arrived. The percentage of California Voters expressing their loyalty to the Democratic Party increased from thirty-four percent (34%) back in 1994 to thirty-eight percent (38%) in 2008.

Republicans must have decreased by at least this much, right? Wrong again. The percentage of California Voters expressing their loyalty to the Republican Party has remained virtually unchanged during the same period. In 2004, twenty-nine percent (29%) expressed their loyalty to Republicans, and that number was still twenty-eight percent (28%) in 2008. Again, this hardly signifies a Republican collapse.

What we are seeing is simply a temporary perception change among the soft middle, the “swing voters” of California. They want to be part of the movement for real change that President Obama is so fond of talking about. They want to disassociate themselves from President Bush and the economic downturn that the media has told them he is responsible for. They want to identify themselves with the party in power and be optimistic about the future. How long will this perception change last? It depends on how bad economic conditions become, and it depends even more on what kind of fresh new ideas the Republican Party and its individual candidates come up with. As we have said over and over again, how quickly the Republican Party comes up with a message other than, “we oppose Obama and his policies” will determine how long it takes for them to once again regain the trust of California’s swing voters.

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