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Independents' Day: The Rise of the "Un-Party State" and the 2002 California Governor's Race

By Mark Baldassare, research director, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the Orange County Register on October 20, 2002

The current governor’s race seems to offer proof positive of what national pundits have been saying since the 2000 election: Statewide races are no longer competitive matches in the Golden State.

Just look at the facts: For over a year now, half of the voters in the Public Policy Institute of California’s statewide surveys have told us they are unhappy with Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. Many give him negative marks for his handling of a number of key issues, from education to the electricity crisis. And majorities believe that the world’s sixth-largest economy is in bad shape and see the state as headed in the wrong direction.

All of these trends should spell trouble for an incumbent governor. But surprisingly, Davis has led GOP challenger Bill Simon by a comfortable margin in every voter survey we have conducted since August. GOP activists are fearful that another loss at the top of the ticket will doom their other statewide and legislative candidates and add to steady Democratic gains in elected offices. Is California now a “one-party state” where Democrats can’t lose?

In making early predictions that the Democrats will win in November, political observers are not really going out on a limb. They can simply point to last three California elections—1996, 1998, and 2000— when Democratic candidates at the top of the ticket cruised to easy statewide victories. The fact is, not too many Republicans have won statewide races since the 1994 election. In addition to the governor, the state’s two U.S. Senators are Democrats. Only one Republican, California Secretary of State Bill Jones, holds a statewide office today. And GOP legislators find themselves in a minority position—one that is only expected to grow smaller—in the California congressional delegation, state Senate, and state Assembly.

Does this trend reflect changes in voter registration in favor of the Democrats? Not really. While Democrats do outnumber Republicans in California today—45 percent to 35 percent—the margin was the same in the 1980s, when Republicans were winning in statewide races. In fact, Democrats have outnumbered GOP voters by a 10-point margin and a million-plus votes for two decades.

However, there is a powerful political trend underway in the state that is reshaping the state’s electorate and it’s major party contests. Simply put, California is moving in the direction of an “un-party state” where neither Democrats nor Republicans have the upper hand with a fickle electorate.

Indeed, the percentage of both Democrats and Republicans has been in decline for over a decade. Today, one in five voters are registered as “decline to state” (independent) or belong to other parties (Libertarian, Green, etc.). There are 2.25 million independent voters today, double the number in 1988. And the number is growing in all regions of the state with each election.

What has contributed to the growth of independent voters? First and foremost, a desire among many Californians to keep a distance from the major parties, their candidates, and the political establishment that they have grown to distrust. In our most recent survey, 55 percent of voters said they were unhappy with the choices for governor this year, and two in three voters were not satisfied with the attention being paid to issues of importance to them. Independent voters are increasing in numbers during an era of political disillusionment.

For the past few years, independents have tended to lean Democratic rather than Republican. Independents favored Clinton and Gore in recent presidential races, and Feinstein and Boxer in Senate races, propelling these Democrats to victory in statewide elections. In the 2002 gubernatorial election, independents favor the Democrat over the Republican by a sizable margin, as they did in the 1998 governor’s race. Therein lies the problem for Republicans: Given that Democratic voters outnumber GOP voters in California, Republicans can’t win without the heavy support of independent voters.

While independent voters are leaning Democratic now, that wasn’t always the case. In previous decades, they were the staunch supporters of Ronald Reagan, George Deukmejian, George H. W. Bush, and Pete Wilson and helped fuel a conservative perception of California. Most independent voters say that it is issues, and how the candidates handle them, that drive their choices. In an earlier time, GOP candidates addressed independents’ top concerns—crime, the Cold War, and high taxes. Today, Democrats are speaking to their core issues—the economy, health care and schools.

Who are these independent voters? Most describe themselves as moderate-to-somewhat conservative in their politics. They are distrustful of government having too large a role in their lives, making them liberals on social issues and conservatives of fiscal issues. In recent times, Democratic candidates have wooed independent voters by drawing sharp contrasts between the records of Democratic and Republican candidates on three issues—abortion, gun control and the environment. Independents are overwhelmingly pro-choice on abortion, strongly in favor of stricter gun controls, and mostly supportive of stricter environmental regulations.

While they have fared well in recent years, Democrats would be wise to learn from the experience of state Republicans and not bank on their party’s political dominance. Their success in recent years has depended on corralling the large and growing number of independents. These voters have leaned toward Democrats recently on the basis of the issues that drove them to the polls, but their distrust of government and their fiscal conservatism also make them similar to GOP voters. Independent voters could shift back to the Republicans without much provocation, thus ending the speculation about a one-party state.

For Republicans to be successful on the statewide political stage, their candidates must find ways to appeal to the growing legions of independent voters. Attention to the issues that matter most to independent voters is the surest recipe for either party’s future success. Whatever the outcome on Nov. 5, one thing is certain: The un-party state that has replaced the two-party state in California. The political pendulum can swing from one major party to the other in the next election with shifting allegiances of the independent voter.


Just the Facts: California's Likely Voters

A California State of Mind: The Conflicted Voter in a Changing World

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

Statewide Survey - September 2002

Statewide Survey - October 2002