Dan Walters: California saw big changes in electorate

dwalters@sacbee.comNovember 12, 2012 

Dan Walters

This wasn't your father's electorate, much less your grandfather's.

Even as California's white population declined sharply in the last generation to well below 50 percent, middle-age Anglo homeowners still dominated California's elections. And this widening characteristic gap between voters and the overall population contributed to chronic political gridlock.

But Tuesday's election saw the emergence of a much different demographic profile that, if it continues, permanently changes assumptions about our politics.

California's new electorate, derived from exit polling data, is multiracial, younger, more liberal, not very religious and less likely to be married with children.

The Field Poll, California's most venerable survey, had calculated in its last pre- election poll that Tuesday's voters would be 70-plus percent white and mostly 50-plus years old – just about what it's been in recent elections.

But an exit poll conducted for a consortium of news organizations found them to be just 54 percent white and just 36 percent 50 years or older.

A late-blooming surge of voter registration that was largely young and Democratic hinted at the Election Day shift. It happened so late and so suddenly, thanks to a new Internet registration system, that Field and other pollsters could not adjust their survey samples.

Among its other effects, the registration surge dropped the Republican share to below 30 percent for the first time in the state's history – a decline also reflected in Tuesday's election, when just 28 percent of those casting ballots were self-described Republicans, about as many as saw themselves as independents.

The result was more-than-expected Democratic victories in key legislative and congressional races and in ballot measure contests, including passage of Gov. Jerry Brown's tax measure.

Brown had campaigned extensively on college campuses, warning students of tuition increases and other impacts should the measure fail, and it fueled the registration drive.

Were this year's new voters to continue their political participation, they would, it appears, dye California's politics an even deeper and more permanent shade of blue.

But voter turnout in nonpresidential elections is usually much lower, and younger voters, especially nonwhites, have not had high participation levels in past years.

Thus, the intensity of what happened in California this year may fade in future elections, but there's no doubt that the long reign of older white voters is coming to an end and that voters in future elections will more closely approximate the state's diverse socioeconomic and demographic makeup.

Whatever that trend bodes for the state, it nevertheless is a fascinating and historic phenomenon.

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