California Forum

Let’s check prevailing political wisdom with California primary facts

Some experts predicted a surge of young people registering to vote would help Sen. Bernie Sanders win the California primary. That didn’t happen.
Some experts predicted a surge of young people registering to vote would help Sen. Bernie Sanders win the California primary. That didn’t happen.

Now that California’s June primary votes are finally counted, let’s look to November.

Donald Trump’s claim that he will compete in California notwithstanding, Hillary Clinton will carry California and its 55 electoral votes, and a Democrat will replace Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

The real fight will be for the legislative and congressional seats. But let’s check the prevailing wisdom against the facts, as compiled by the California Target Book staff.

First, some experts predicted a registration surge of historic proportions that would propel Sen. Bernie Sanders to a primary victory in California. That didn’t happen. Clinton captured 53 percent of the Democratic presidential primary vote, and the spike in registered voters was a chimera.

Total registration increased by almost 656,000 between January and mid-May. For context, during roughly the same span in 2012, registration increased by about 694,000 and in 2008 by not quite 587,000.

Next, take a peek at turnout. Slightly more than 8.5 million ballots were cast, a 47.6 percent turnout. This is far higher than the 31.1 percent turnout in 2012 when there was no uncertainty in the presidential primary, but lower than the 2008 presidential primary participation of 57.7 percent.

In 2008, the primary was held in February, when the races still were undecided between Clinton and Barack Obama, and John McCain and Mitt Romney.

Most observers believe that California continues to take on a deeper hue of blue. That’s correct, although the most significant growth is with neither major party. Democrats account for 44.8 percent of registrants, up from 43.4 percent in 2012 and 43.8 in 2008. If there is a surge in California, it is among independents and third party registrants combined, meaning members of neither major party, who now account for 27.9 percent of registration, an increase from 26.4 percent in 2012 and 23.7 percent in 2008.

Republicans are in third place with 27.3 percent, down from 30.2 percent in 2012 and 32.5 percent in 2008. They are in a world of hurt in California. Sanders received roughly 150,000 votes more than all the Republican candidates for president combined.

Third, although the total vote in the presidential race is generally greater than the combined vote in congressional races, in June 2.2 million votes were cast for the Republican presidential candidates, and 2.6 million votes were cast down ticket for Republican congressional candidates, an unusual development. By comparison, the Democratic presidential candidates garnered almost 5.2 million votes and Democrats running for congressional seats received 4.9 million votes, which reflects a more typical pattern.

Some experts cite this GOP under vote as evidence of further erosion of the party’s support in California. That assessment could reflect a rejection of Trump and suggest that California Republicans have little to look forward to in the fall, barring a coup in Cleveland, which is unlikely.

But there are two other, more charitable, explanations. Some Republicans may have passed on voting in the presidential primary because it had become noncompetitive. Another possibility is that some Democrats, independents and third party registrants who could not vote in the closed GOP primary chose a Republican for Congress, which they could do in the top-two primary.

That might give Republicans some reason to hope the party will be able to hold its own in down-ballot races in the fall. And November is a long way off.

If the 2016 race has taught us anything, it is that anyone can be a pundit and insiders will be prone to ascribe meaning and discern trends where often none exists. But the reality remains: California is a unique place politically. Were the heavily Democratic primary results an anomaly of the Clinton-Sanders faceoff, or do they portend a Democratic landslide in the fall? That will be determined by what the voters do, not what the political elites expect them to do.

Darry Sragow is a longtime Democratic strategist, attorney and publisher of the California Target Book. Contact him at Rob Pyers is research director of the California Target Book. Contact him at