The California Primary Voter Gap


By Carson Bruno

bio-photo-carson-brunoWhile Los Angeles County accounts for roughly 30% of total registered Democrats in California, only 20% of actual Democrat primary voters come from that part of the Golden State. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the opposite is true: about 20% of total registered Democrats account for 27% of actual Democrat primary voters. It might not be a coincidence, then, that of the state’s top office holders – the eight state constitutional officers and two U.S. Senators – all but State Controller John Chiang and Secretary of State Debra Bowen (Angelenos both) got their political start in the Bay Area.

Bowen and Chiang probably slipped through because their opponents hailed from smaller regions of the state. For instance, Bowen’s major opponent, Deborah Ortiz, was a termed-out Sacramento-area state Senator, which accounts for only 7% of Democratic primary voters. Chiang’s challenger was Joe Dunn, an Orange County state senator. In 2006, the O.C.s share of the Democratic vote was just one-fifth that of L.A. County. The Bay Area-Los Angeles regional gap could likely be the result of income differentials between Bay Area Democrats and Southland Democrats. Based on data from the Hoover Institution’s January Golden State Poll, the average family income for Bay Area Democrats was approximately $85,000 versus about $63,000 for L.A. Democrats (at the 95% confidence level, this difference is statistically significant). Since higher income individuals are more likely to be civically engaged, the fact that Bay Area Democrats, on average, have higher incomes could explain their willingness to actually vote.

But do Republicans in California have such a regional disparity? No. Sure, Los Angeles Republicans underperform in primaries compared to their registration by an average of 4% since 2002, but no region sees a major deviation like the Democrats.

While geographical bases play an important role in Democratic primaries, Republican primaries are likely influenced by a much different culprit: ideology. Using PPIC data, since 2002, on average, 68% of Republican primary voters come from counties with a higher propensity of Republican voters who identify as liberal. However, this is likely overstating the moderate Republican voting bloc; for instance, in the lead up to the 2012 Republican Presidential primary, Field Poll estimated 40% of the Republican primary electorate was “strongly conservative” and right before the 2010 Republican gubernatorial and senatorial contests, Field Poll had 51% of Republican primary voters as “strongly conservative.” As such, it is reasonable to conclude that the Republican primary electorate is rather evenly balanced ideologically, particularly recently.

A look at the recent GOP primary battles underscores this. In 2010, the more moderate Meg Whitman and Tom Campbell battled it out with the more conservative Steve Poizner and Carly Fiorina in gubernatorial and senatorial contests. In 2006, moderate Abel Maldonado and conservative Tony Strickland went head to head for the Republican State Controller nomination. In 2002, moderate Richard Riordan and conservatives Bill Simon and Bill Jones competed for the right to face then-Gov. Gray Davis.

In this year’s only statewide contest featuring a Republican contest, ideology is becoming an issue. Assemblyman Tim Donnelly is casting himself as the true conservative alternative, particularly over moderate former Treasury official Neel Kashkari. But it is possible ideology won’t be the only factor in this June’s primary; who won’t do a rebuilding party harm come November could equally be a top priority. In this regard, the state’s top-two system may have shifted the battle lines for Republican candidates running statewide. Only time will tell, though, whether that is actually the case.

However, in the Controller, Secretary of State, and possibly, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction races, the Democratic geographical gap could play the deciding factor.

Controller: Since Republican Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin will likely move forward to November, the real battle is between Board of Equalization member Betty Yee (of the Bay Area) and Assembly Speaker John Perez (of Los Angeles). A recent Field Poll gives Yee a 5% led over Perez. Among Democrats, she’s ahead 35%-24%. Assuming Yee likely runs strongest in the Bay Area and northern costal regions (which she has represented since 2005 as a member of the state’s Board of Equalization) while Perez is stronger in his Southland base, the geographical turnout gap could be enough to neutralize Perez’s more substantial war chest and union backing propelling Yee into the general election.

Secretary of State: Republican Pete Peterson is likely to advance to the November ballot. Originally, the major Democrats competing were State Senators Leland Yee (of San Francisco) and Alex Padilla (of Los Angeles). However, Yee abandoned the race following his spectacular run-in with the law over alleged bribery and gunrunning charges. Still, Yee’s name will remain on the ballot – first among candidates thanks to a random ballot assignment. While the chances of such an occurrence are very slim, Yee’s Bay Area connections coupled with his 1st position on the ballot and two other Democrats running could boost him over Padilla to advance to November, leaving the Democrats with an indicted and suspended state Senator to compete against Peterson. This scenario could be the reason why Padilla’s campaign has recently received significant endorsement from some of the state’s leading Bay Area Democrats, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, State Attorney General Kamala Harris and Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction: While this race is technically non-partisan, the geographical forces could be at work. Incumbent Tom Torlakson got his start in Bay Area politics, advancing to the office from the State Legislature. His principal challenger, Democrat Marshall Tuck, led Green Dot Public Schools, a Los Angeles charter school system, and the Partnership of Los Angeles Schools, an endeavor pushed by former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to improve the Los Angeles Unified School District (Villaraigosa has endorsed Tuck). If geographical forces are at work within the Democratic primary, Torlakson will be the beneficiary; however, the Republican running isn’t likely strong enough to prevent Tuck from advancing under the top-two system. In this case, the top-two primary could be the remedy to the Los Angeles Democratic drop-off problem.

The registration-primary voter regional gap could explain the Bay Area’s dominance in California politics. It also can explain the perennial battle on the Republican side against the two ideological factions. While the Democratic regional gap works to explain most of the electoral outcomes between Democrats, though, the Republican situation is less clear-cut. While the likes of Simon and Fiorina fended off less conservative rivals, the GOP’s moderate regions have held a slight advantage over the past decade. Thus Republican elections may have more to do with candidate strength and circumstantial events than purely ideology.

However, in both cases, one aspect is clear, who your base is matters and in order to win, your base needs to actually come out to vote.

Carson Bruno is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution who primarily studies California public policy, electoral politics, and public opinion, with a focus on the future of the California Republican Party. Carson also explores domestic economic policy, tax policy, and the intersection of energy and environmental policy.

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