Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for The Sacramento Bee and McClatchy.
The most important question heading into last week’s primary election was whether Donald Trump could motivate California voters to turn out in greater numbers than usual.
When we asked some of the state’s most respected experts in politics, policy and civic engagement participating in our “California Influencers” series to identify lessons learned from the first statewide primary campaign of the Trump era, one conclusion stood out:
Neither Trump's supporters nor his much larger contingent of opponents used the election to send a clear message about their opinion of the president.
“For months the media has hyped the prospect of a 'Blue Wave,' changing control of the House of Representatives,” said former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. “But unless turnout in November goes from anemic to robust, there will be no change. The ‘RESIST’ movement must exist apart from press conferences, cable news, and outrage on social media.”
Davis’ predecessor, former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, seconded Davis’ point from the other side of the aisle.
“Vote totals from Tuesday’s primary point to a sizable Republican advantage in almost every district the Democrats had targeted,” Wilson said, also predicting that the presence of fellow Republican John Cox on the general election ballot in the governor's race would benefit the GOP in November. “Cox…will energize Republican voters to turn out in support of their candidates.”
Though the final total will not be known until later this week, it appears turnout will be between 33 percent and 40 percent of all registered voters. That's somewhat more than the 2014 midterms, in which there was little competition in that year’s governor’s race, but far below levels seen in 2016 and other presidential elections. That doesn’t include those eligible to vote who didn’t sign up.
Regardless of partisan impact, “this is a problem we can’t ignore,” said Jim Boren, the newly named Executive Director of the Institute for Media and Public Trust at Fresno State University and former Executive Editor of the Fresno Bee. “Our democracy cannot thrive to its fullest potential when two-thirds of voters have something better to do than vote.”
Or as Bay Area political consultant Catherine Lew put it: “Where art thou, voter? Turnout, Turnout, Turnout!”
California Influencers pointed to the tone of the campaign dialogue and speculated that voters simply didn't think their lives would be affected by the outcome.
“What I actually experienced was a barrage of excessively large campaign mailers, television and radio ads that lacked any substance, candidates avoiding honest discourse, millions of dollars spent by both parties, outside 'special interest' groups that spent even more,” said former Republican National Committee member Linda Ackerman, now the president of the Marian Bergeson Excellence in Public Service Series.
“Californians who did not vote likely feel that voting doesn’t matter for them and their families,” said Mindy Romero, Director of the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis. “They don’t see the difference voting makes for issues they care about in their communities. They don’t see how their elected representatives directly affect their lives. This is understandable. But it's wrong.”
More Californians are participating in rallies and protests since 2016, several noted, but not necessarily casting ballots.
“I am struck by the disconnect between the passionate activism and informed debates on the critical matters of our time occurring daily on our campuses, and the disappointingly low turnout at the polls when voices also matter for the future,” said California State University Chancellor Tim White. “…We need more Californians – from every background and belief – invested in the process of engaged citizenship to further strengthen the Golden State.”
Daniel Zingale, Senior Vice President of the California Endowment, drew from the annals of state history to put it even more succinctly: “California needs a new voters' movement to match our marches.”
Influencers offered a number of potential solutions, including all-mail voting tested in several California counties.
But most came back to the responsibility of voter-to-voter engagement.
Aziza Hasan, Executive Director for the New Ground Muslim Jewish Partnership for Change, put it this way: “The vast majority of registered voters will not come to the polls by themselves. We need to knock on doors and talk to people. Listen to people. Just showing up says, “Your voice is important; your vote counts.”