It's a good time to be a Democrat in California.
As the California Democratic Party gathers in Sacramento Friday for its convention, the state's status as a liberal stronghold is well-established. It has gone to Democratic presidential candidates in the last six elections and hasn't elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1986.
But the ascendancy of a Democratic supermajority at the Capitol, combined with a steady drumbeat of polls registering increased support for traditionally liberal policies, speaks to the potential for broader, long-term shifts in the state's political and demographic landscape. If the coalition of young, independent, educated and minority voters that propelled Democrats to their current dominance holds, it could translate into sustained Democratic rule.
Republicans "may or may not be able to break the stranglehold on the two-thirds majority (in the Legislature), because the margins are so narrow," said Bruce Cain, a political science professor at Stanford University. But "basic majority control is for the foreseeable future in the hands of the Democrats, and it will take a really catastrophic collapse of the state's economy to change that."
The new contours of Democratic political power are familiar by now: wide majorities in both houses of the Legislature, control of every statewide elected office, wins in targeted congressional races in November and a victory on Proposition 30, the tax-raising ballot initiative that Gov. Jerry Brown and his allies championed last year as a solution to the state's fiscal woes.
Beyond the vote-counting math in Sacramento, polls also illustrate the state's leftward drift. Field Polls from earlier this year found increased support for same-sex marriage; broad backing for gun control; a majority of voters favoring marijuana legalization; and an unprecedented level of support for offering undocumented immigrants driver's licenses, discounted tuition and a path to citizenship.
That is being driven in large part by independent voters, Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo said. The share of the California electorate with no party preference has steadily risen as the proportion of Republicans has dropped and the percentage of Democratic voters has leveled off. Self-avowed independents are gobbling up the Republicans' shrinking slice of the electoral pie, and they are increasingly reliable Democratic votes.
"The reality is that (nonpartisans) tend to vote Democratic in recent years, and I think a lot of that has to do with social issues," DiCamillo said.
Underpinning these shifts, political scientists say, are demographic trends that are reshaping California's electorate. Much has been made of the growing numbers and clout of Latino voters, and devising ways to appeal to them received much attention during the California Republican Party's convention in March.
But in some ways the key fault lines are generational, not ethnic. Younger voters - particularly young Latinos - are not only more likely to be socially liberal, they also are more likely to be fiscally liberal, less leery of higher taxes.
"Those under 40 are almost like a different electorate from those over 40, who are predominantly whiter and more conservative," said Paul Mitchell, the vice president of Political Data Inc. "The Republican Party is still in play with voters over 40."
More profound changes could be ahead. Mitchell noted that the people who showed up at the polls in November reflected California in the 1980s more than the California of 2012. Latinos are expected to become the state's largest ethnic group this year, but that won't surface in election results for years.
"The real caveat about this is our elections and who shows up or votes in our elections is basically a 25- or 30-year lagging indicator of what California looks like," Mitchell said. "If a kid is born in a downtown hospital in Los Angeles today, in 18 years he'll be eligible to vote and in 25 or 30 years he'll be a regular voter."
Predictions of permanent electoral realignments rarely pan out, so much will rest on how Democrats wield their power. Matt Rexroad, a partner at the consulting firm Meridian Pacific, drew a parallel to Republicans overplaying their hand in the 1990s, when they briefly held the Assembly and the Governor's Office, by pushing divisive issues.
After the most recent election, Rexroad said, "every one of those Democratic legislators was saying 'we don't need to overreach, but I have this one little thing that's important to me,' and collectively they all have one little thing."
"The question for (Assembly) Speaker (John) Pérez and (Senate President Pro Tem) Senator (Darrell) Steinberg is, do they have the ability to be the adult in the house and say no?" Rexroad continued. "Republicans in 1995 didn't seem to have the courage to say no."
Another common argument is that, as the current cohort of liberal-minded young Californians ages and begins purchasing homes and paying more taxes, they will shift gradually to the right.
But there is also some evidence that voters are shaped for life by the political climate when they become eligible to vote. Mitchell points to data showing that Democratic registration soared during the Watergate scandal, while those who began voting in the Reagan era retained more conservative tendencies.
Under this logic, the surge of youthful enthusiasm that that has accompanied President Barack Obama's rise could imprint itself permanently on voters who cast their first ballots in the last few years.
"I suspect that young people who came of age with Barack Obama will be more likely to be Democrats for the rest of their lives," said Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.
But McGhee quickly added a note of caution, pointing out a phenomenon political scientists refer to as the "thermostatic" tendency of voters - like a central heating system adjusting to a room becoming too hot or too cold, the electorate tends to eventually offset shifts in either direction.
"It's important," McGhee said, "to not get too wrapped up in the moment we're in now and think we're going to be there forever."
STATE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION
Delegates from around the state are gathering in Sacramento this weekend for the California Democratic Party convention. Here is a sampling of the schedule.
TODAY: Reception with California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton. Party in the evening honoring Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom.
SATURDAY: Luncheon featuring House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and California freshman House members Ami Bera, Scott Peters, Raul Ruiz and Mark Takano. Satirist Will Durst performs at dinner.
SUNDAY: Results of vote for next secretary of the California Democratic Party announced during general session.
Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543. Follow him on Twitter @jeremybwhite.