Dan Walters

Dan Walters: GOP on declining path as voter ranks shrink

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Recently released voter registration figures show that a years-long trend in the makeup of California’s electorate – one that already has fundamentally altered the state’s political dynamics – is continuing.

Republicans, who dominated California during most of the 20th century, are continuing to lose ground among voters or, as former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger once told fellow Republicans at a state convention, they are “dying at the box office.”

The GOP now claims just 28.2 percent of the state’s registered voters, a 6.5-percentage-point drop over the last 10 years.

If there’s any solace for Republicans in the numbers, it is that Democrats haven’t been improving their share of the electorate. At 43.4 percent, it’s virtually identical to what it was in 2004.

The ranks of “decline-to-state” or independent voters have continued to climb, up 5.4 percentage points from 2004 to a current 23.1 percent. In fact, independents now outnumber Republicans in 12 of the state’s 59 counties and were the trend to continue, independents could surpass Republicans in the whole state by the end of this decade.

That said, the GOP decline has slowed a bit in the last couple of years, so the party may be close to its numerical floor.

Moreover, in elections with low voter turnout, such as this year’s, the wide margin between the two parties narrows significantly, giving Republicans openings to take seats that, on paper, would appear to be out of reach.

Republican leaders are well aware that they may be on a path to becoming completely irrelevant in the nation’s most populous state and are trying to become more attractive to non-white and younger voters by fielding a more diverse and more moderate array of candidates.

Those efforts don’t sit well with hard-line conservatives, who dismiss moderate GOP politicians as “RINOs” – Republicans in name only.

However, with Democrats already holding every statewide office and wide majorities in the Legislature and congressional delegation, the GOP simply cannot remain even marginally viable without change that, to use Schwarzenegger’s metaphor, brings more people to the box office.

The fact that Democrats’ voter registration remains well below 50 percent means that in statewide races, and those for many legislative and congressional seats, they cannot win without independents either.

Democrats have been winning independents on social issues such as immigration, abortion rights and gay marriage.

However, the GOP’s newest array of statewide candidates is not out of sync on those issues. Over time, the party just might find traction among the burgeoning numbers of independents, particularly if Democrats allow their uber-liberal wing, which is as much out of touch with reality as the GOP’s ultra-conservative core, to become dominant.