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State Prez Race Hinges on Voters Outside of Big Parties

By Mark Baldassare, senior fellow, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the Sacramento Bee on August 27, 2000

As the conventions fade to summer memories, the presidential candidates shift their focus from the party faithful to the "swing" voters who decide presidential elections.

California is destined to play a crucial role in the unfolding drama of a tight race this fall: No Republican has been elected president in the 20th century without winning California, and the Democrats don't have a prayer this year without the Golden State in their column. It is not surprising, then, that both George W. Bush and Al Gore express confidence - at least publicly - about a victory in California.

Meanwhile, the pundits around the country have been busily spreading the word that statewide elections in California are now a sure thing for the Democrats. Their pronouncements reflect the fact that the governor, both U.S. senators, and all but one of the state's executive branch officers are Democrats. Moreover, Bill Clinton beat George Bush here in the 1992 presidential race and then thumped Bob Dole on his way to being reelected in 1996. But beyond the spin-doctoring, are there some forces at work in California that might make the Gore camp nervous and the Bush camp hopeful this time around? In reality, the Democrat's grip on state elections is more tenuous than it seems.

The Democrat's winning streak at the ballot box is not a result of a surge in voter registration. In 1988, the last time a Republican won a presidential election in this state, there were more registered Democratic voters (7.05 million) than there are today (6.68 million). Republicans have lost a similar share of their voter base in the last 12 years, falling from 5.41 million in 1988 to 5.14 million today. The Democrats had an 11-point margin over Republicans in 1988 (50 percent to 39 percent) and that same advantage still holds today (46 percent to 35 percent). It also remains true that the margin between Democrats and Republicans narrows to only 4 or 5 percentage points among the voters who are most likely to cast ballots.

The biggest change in the state's political landscape has been the growth in the number of voters outside of the two major parties. The proportion of independent voters has doubled from one in 10 voters in 1988 to two in 10 voters in 2000, with most choosing not to affiliate with minor parties. Given the decline in major party registration and the fact that Republicans are Democrats in California have fallen far short a majority, state contests now hinge on the choices made by the 2.05 million independent or "decline to state" voters.

Indeed, the recent Democratic successes are the result of winning the unaffiliated vote. Examples abound in the 1998 statewide election, when one in five voters was neither Democrat nor Republican. In the governor's race, voters outside the major parties favored Gray Davis over Dan Lungren by 18 percentage points (53 percent to 35 percent), leading to a 20-point Davis victory. In the U.S. Senate race, independents went for Barbara Boxer over Matt Fong by 8 percentage points (50 percent to 42 percent), giving Boxer a 10-point win

This year's presidential election is still up for grabs in California because the independent voters have yet to settle on a candidate. In the Public Policy Institute of California Statewide Survey, of 988 voters taken between July 28 and Aug 4, after the Republicans met in Philadelphia but before the Democratic convention in Los Angeles, Gore only narrowly led Bush (40 percent to 37 percent). Predictably, Democrats overwhelmingly favored Gore, and Republicans strongly supported Bush. But most important, the voters outside of the major parties showed divided loyalties - 33 percent for Bush, 23 percent for Gore, 21 percent for Nader, 3 percent for Buchanan, and 20 percent undecided - placing the crucial California race in a statistical dead heat.

What hints do we have of independent voters' leaning? Not a lot. Ask them what party they feel closest to, and they are equally likely to say Democrat (35 percent), Republican (31 percent) or neither party (34 percent). Ask them about their political philosophy and they are most likely to say middle-of-the-road (37 percent) and equally likely to say they are liberal (29 percent) or conservative (31 percent).

So who are these powerful independent voters and what do they want? Compared to the voters in the two major parties, these voters are younger, more likely to be employed and less likely to own a home. They show passing interest in politics, have not fully focused on this presidential election and are more likely to rely on television than newspapers for their political information. They want the presidential candidates to talk about issues, most notably schools, health care, Social Security, and the mix of tax cuts and spending

Underlying these issues are worries about the future and ambivalence about the government's role in solving the problems these Californians encounter in everyday life. As a voter group, they are highly distrustful of government and party politics. Yet, most believe their local schools need more funds to provide a quality education, think the next president should focus on saving the Social Security system, and want the federal government to protect the rights of patients in HMOs. At the same time, these voters are divided when asked how much the federal budget surplus should be put towards tax cuts versus social programs. And the reality is this: At this point, neither Bush nor Gore seems to have connected with their deepest concerns.

In recent elections, Democrats have wooed independent voters by drawing sharp contrasts between the records of Republican and Democratic candidates on three issues - abortion, guns, and the environment. Independents are overwhelmingly pro-choice, and strongly favor stricter gun controls and environmental regulations. Looks for Gore's supporters to dwell on these issues, while Bush's team tries to move on to other topics. This race will at least partly hinge on how the GOP handles this transition, which they have managed more adeptly this year than in campaigns past.

So, while the national pundits are predicting that this election will be all over by the Labor Day weekend, the uncertainty expressed by California voters suggests this one could be a cliffhanger. Independent voters have a lot of big issues on their minds this year. They are likely to focus late, but then they will listen intently to what the candidates have to say about their concerns. The October debates should be the key in deciding the election in California and, ultimately, who will sit in the Oval Office for the next four years.


Just the Facts: Election 2000: Legislative Analysis

Just the Facts: Election 2000: Statewide Analysis

California in the New Millennium: The Changing Social and Political Landscape

Statewide Survey - August 2000