By Tony Quinn
Who’s going to vote in 2016? As this election year unfolds, that is probably the most important question.
Democrats and liberal activists certainly think it will be a huge Democratic turnout; that is why they are loading the fall ballot with their wish list of liberal ballot measures.
Certainly if turnout is anything like the last presidential election year, 2012, that is a good bet. Driven by young and new voters supporting Proposition 30, Governor Brown’s tax increase, turnout in 2012 had a definite liberal bias. The partisan breakdown of the vote that year was 45 percent Democratic, only 31 percent Republican, and a whopping 24 percent independent. The independent voters included many new voters drawn to the polls by a promise that the tax increase would make it unnecessary to raise college tuition, as it did.
It also was clear in the presidential race that GOP nominee Mitt Romney received only the Republican base vote, while President Obama received the loyal Democrats and a huge chunk of independents. Mr. Obama beat Mr. Romney in California by a tally of 60 percent to 37 percent.
Despite the major Democratic wins in 2012, California’s turnout was actually low compared to other states, and compared to its own history. At 72 percent of registered voters, it was only 56 percent of eligible voters, and that ranked 41st among the states. It also was lower than it had been in 2004 and 2008, other presidential years.
So theoretically, the Democratic margin could have been even greater if the turnout of eligible voters had been higher. But that seems less likely for 2016, with a couple of caveats.
California is no longer a battleground state, so the presidential races does not drive turnout as it once did. The probability is that California’s U.S. Senate race will have two Democrats, and no Republican candidate, and will not drive turnout. This year is not shaping up as one with hotly contested partisan races for Congress and the Legislature.
So, once again, it may be ballot measures that get voters’ attention, as was the case in 2012. But right now, it is hard to see which ones. Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom is pushing a strong gun control measure that polls well, but gun control often brings out rural pro-gun voters who fear gun confiscation. There surely will be tax increase measures aimed at the wealthy on the fall ballot, but the polling on them has been middling, as we seem to be past the big state deficit of 2012.
So the turnout drivers this fall could well be the unknowns. Hillary Clinton is not polling particularly well against a variety of Republicans; she may not be able to bring out the huge non-white vote that came out in 2012 to support President Obama. And Democrats face a problem that was very clear in 2014: that year, only 42 percent of voters went to the polls, and among Latinos, only 28 percent of registered voters actually cast a ballot. Among African-Americans, it was just 32 percent, but among whites, the turnout was 49 percent, with a heavy bias toward older whites.
Democrats may face a turnout problem they have not faced in past presidential elections – motivating their own base to come out. Based on the 2014 turnout, Democrats definitely need to convince their own voters that it is worth going to the polls.
But Republican turnout has been equally poor in recent years. Mitt Romney did nothing to turn out his own voters in 2012, and California Republicans are definitely now “orphans” in the political world, where California no longer matters. There will not be a Ronald Reagan on the ballot in 2016 to get Republicans to the polls.
Maybe Hillary Clinton will pick a Latino running mate, and that could motivate a much bigger straight-ticket Latino turnout in November. Voters vote their fears, and many Republicans have been outspoken in their fear that the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Donald Trump could be a turnout motivator for the other side.
For Democrats to match the 2012 turnout level of 72 percent of registered voters, they will need a major turnout increase over the paltry 42 percent of voters who voted in 2014. Whether they can motivate voters to cast a ballot this year may well be the single biggest issue in determining whether the liberal ballot measures pass or fail.
T. Anthony Quinn is the co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of California’s legislative and congressional elections. He has 40 years of experience with California state government, including serving as vice president of Goddard Claussen Porter Novelli, and as director of the Office of Economic Research in the California Department of Commerce, performing analyses of state economic and demographic trends, and advising the governor and Legislature on the California economy.
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