In mid-2016, just before Donald Trump won the presidency, California’s Republican Party was on pace to become the third choice of state voters within three years, the first “major” political party to fall that low since Whigs became extinct just before the Civil War.

The pace quickened after that election. Democrats made small gains in voter registration, Republicans suffered losses and the “no party preference” category moved into second place among California’s registered voters even sooner than expected.

Yes, there is constant churn in the voter rolls, with many thousands of voters moving, both within California and to other places, and many thousands more entering the voting lists from other states and via naturalization of immigrants.

But simple churn can’t explain away the fact that between September 2014 and September 2018, the four years between mid-term elections, California’s Democratic registration rose by about 680,000, while Republicans dropped by 310,000 and NPP’s climbed by 1.03 million. In percentage terms, Democrats now have almost 45 percent of all voters, NPPs amount to slightly less than 27 percent and the GOP has just 24.5 percent. That’s a rise of almost 2 million no-party-preference voters since 2010.

Yet, only one NPP candidate qualified for the statewide runoff ballot last year, former Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, a onetime Republican who says he long wanted to shed his former GOP label but could not until state voters adopted the open primary election system in 2010.

So independent voters have not yet asserted themselves much at the polls, but the makings are there for a centrist third major political party that could seriously challenge the leftist-dominated Democrats and the right-oriented Republicans, if it could find prominent, capable leadership.

If past is prologue, the registration shifts will be even more striking during next year’s presidential election season, independent of the strong feelings Trump regularly elicits from supporters and opponents.

In 2016, registration rose almost 2 million above the previous mid-term election numbers, which were a record for off-year balloting. And last year, despite the churn of the previous two years, the 19.1 million registered voters and the portion of eligible Californians who registered (76 percent) were almost as high as during last the presidential year. That means registration will likely reach 20 million two years from now, with about 80 percent of eligible citizens signed up to vote.

There’s some comfort here for Democrats, even though their registration numbers have increased far less than the no-party-preference ranks, where there is growth without any organized sign-up effort of the sort both major parties regularly run during election seasons.

Democrats have seen many thousands of former Republican voters convert to their column or drift into NPP-land. But far more ex-Republicans so far choose to switch to the NPP column than into the Democratic fold, which translates as a warning to the Dems: don’t get smug.

The corps of ex-Republicans among NPP registrants is one reason GOP candidates like 2018 gubernatorial hopeful John Cox consistently run ahead of their party’s registration numbers. No Republican seeking statewide office won last year, but all were far ahead of the 24.5 percent level where GOP registration was mired.

This makes it clear that for many longtime Republicans leaving their traditional fold, it’s still not easy to mark a ballot for a Democratic candidate. This suggests that a centrist third party would find a natural recruiting ground available. But it also should tell the state GOP it is hurting because it’s out of step with the majority of Californians whose votes on ballot propositions have long favored gun controls, legalized marijuana and higher tobacco prices, just a few causes few Republican officials ever back.

The Whigs learned that when a party gets too far out of step with the voters its candidates seek to represent, it is doomed.

Doom is not yet inevitable for the California Republican Party. But the latest results should ring alarm bells: If the party doesn’t make its outlook more contemporary, those ex-Republicans who now find it difficult to mark ballots for Democrats may find the task growing easier with each election cycle.

 

Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net.

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