Democrats on pace to lead registration
Union Tribune (2008-10-09) Craig Gustafson
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Democrats on pace to lead registration
By Craig Gustafson and Helen Gao
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITERS
October 9, 2008
The electoral edge that Republicans have held in San Diego County for 24 years is slipping away, and the county may have more registered Democrats than Republicans by Election Day.
The shift is the result of a steady four-year decline in the percentage of registered Republicans and a recent surge in registered Democrats.
The Democratic ranks have swelled by 65,000 this year, 2.5 times more than Republicans. If registration continues at that rate through the last day to register, Oct. 20, the county could turn blue for the first time since 1984.
Local leaders for both parties have seized on this year's high-interest election to increase their ranks.
Democrats have made a push to register college students, trying to latch on to the youthful appeal of their party's presidential nominee, Barack Obama. Republicans say they've seen a boost thanks to Proposition 8, a statewide ballot measure that would ban same-sex marriage.
The latest figures show 523,368, or 37.1 percent, of the county's registered voters identify themselves as Republicans. Democrats account for 35.9 percent, or 505,607. Nearly one-fourth of voters, or 319,120, don't list a party affiliation in the latest data, from Oct. 1.
Republicans held a lead of more than 5 percentage points, or about 81,000 voters, in 2004. That has narrowed to about 17,800 voters, or 1.2 percentage points, this year.
That's the closest it's been since 1984, when Republicans wrested the lead from Democrats, who had led in voter registration for 34 of the previous 37 years. Republicans held a 10-point advantage by 1991.
The change is likely to have more of an impact on the county's identity as a longtime Republican stronghold than cause any real shift at the ballot box, political analysts say.
Pollster John Nienstedt, who has done polling for the Republican Party, said the GOP brand has taken a beating in recent years, distant in time from the fervor here for Republican President Reagan.
Still, Nienstedt, president of Competitive Edge Research and Communication, said he doesn't think an increase in Democrats indicates the county is less conservative.
“Ideology does not have a 1-to-1 relationship with partisanship,” he said. “There are a lot of conservative Democrats out there. I would bet you that ideologically, there hasn't been much of a change.”
In the city of San Diego, for instance, Democrats have a 10 percentage point lead in voter registration. But Republican Mayor Jerry Sanders was re-elected in June over a Republican challenger who was touting labor and environmental support. The Democrats fielded a candidate who got only 6.3 percent of the vote.
The last time a Democrat won San Diego County was in 1992, when Bill Clinton eked out a victory, but that was with third-party candidate Ross Perot peeling off many fiscally conservative voters from the Republican ticket.
The impact of partisanship on local races is especially hard to predict. Cities, school boards and water districts have nonpartisan seats. Meanwhile, state and congressional districts largely favor one party or the other and are rarely competitive, thanks to years of gerrymandering, political experts say.
The countywide trends have played out more dramatically in some cities.
La Mesa, Encinitas and Del Mar have changed columns, switching from a Republican plurality to Democratic since 2004.
In San Diego's City Council District 7, where Republican April Boling and Democrat Marti Emerald are facing off, Democrats now outnumber Republicans by about 2,500 voters. Four years ago, Republicans were three voters ahead.
Some cities have seen notable drops in Republican percentages while Democratic numbers have increased. For example, San Marcos has lost 4.7 percentage points in Republicans; Vista, Chula Vista and Imperial Beach all have lost about 4 percentage points. At the same time, those cities saw an increase in Democrats of as much as 1.8 percent.
County Registrar of Voters Deborah Seiler said the numbers could shift in the coming weeks as she expects as many as 60,000 more voters to register before the Oct. 20 deadline.
If the Democratic margin in registration this year continues, that number of additional voters would put Democrats ahead of Republicans in the county.
Glen Sparrow, a San Diego State University political science professor emeritus, said he predicts that whichever party can best appeal to Latinos will eventually have a long-term edge in voter registration.
Brian Adams, associate political science professor at San Diego State University, said what's happening in the region is a reflection of national voter registration trends.
He has observed trends come and go, saying the current shift toward Democrats is modest. In the early 1990s, he recalled, the GOP was on an upward swing with the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.
“These things fluctuate. You are not seeing big enough changes where you are going to see a permanent trend toward one party or the other,” he said.
Jess Durfee, chairman of the San Diego County Democratic Party, attributes some of his party's recent registration edge to the burgeoning high-tech and biotech industries in the region, which tend to attract scientists and urbanites who previously lived in more liberal places, such as the Bay Area.
Tony Krvaric, chairman of the Republican Party of San Diego County, acknowledged that Republicans face head winds this election cycle, adding that nationally the GOP has strayed from its fiscal conservatism.
But he sees a resurgence thanks to his party's nominee, John McCain
, choosing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as a running mate.
“I think you are hitting the perfect storm, where both camps are getting people excited,” he said.
Election officials expect turnout on Election Day could reach nearly 80 percent of the county's more than 1.4 million registered voters.
Craig Gustafson: (619) 293-1399; firstname.lastname@example.org