Primary ballot still a blank slate for voters

The results so far in this year's presidential race have defied pundits' prognostications and made picking a front-runner impossible.

Both of which are good news for Northern San Joaquin Valley voters, some of whom are starting to cast votes in California's Feb. 5 primary.

Voters are casting absentee ballots in California, though the votes won't be official until election day next month.

The political radar is tuned in among party leaders in Stanislaus County, where Republican registration outnumbers Democrats by about 2,200 voters, according to a state report from last month.

Neil Hudson, president of the Central Valley Democratic Club, said he hopes primary turnout is high, because it would indicate more people are getting informed and paying attention.

If the race between Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is close Feb. 5, independents who've registered as "decline-to-state" could make a big difference in the results.

That's because California Democrats allow decline-to-state registrants to vote in the primary, while Republicans bar them.

As of the December report from the California secretary of state, there were about 29,503 decline-to-staters in Stanislaus County, about 14 percent of the county's registered voters.

Hudson said many of those voters more closely identify with Democrats, but don't register with the party because they're cynical about the U.S. political system in general.

"There's a feeling, especially among young people, that Democrat or Republican, it doesn't really matter," he said.

Hudson said his group works to register more Democrats and plans to push from now until November, when voters pick the 44th president.

For the Republicans, the independent vote won't make an impact in the primary.

That may disappoint decline-to-state voters who want to cast a ballot for party-bucking mavericks such as Texas Rep. Ron Paul, said Joan Clendenin, chairwoman of the Republican Central Committee of Stanislaus County.

She said the surge in decline-to-state voters can be explained by a more viciously partisan climate that turns off many in the electorate.

"It used to be that when the election was over, it was over, and one party won," Clendenin said. "The other party said, 'OK, they're in charge and we'll try again in the next election.' Now, there's a constant fight over everything."

She said personalities will determine who wins the state primary and the presidential election. "If you're not a people person, you're not going to get very far."

But backslapping and glad-handing voters is a lot harder in a hugely populated state such as California than it is in Iowa or New Hampshire.

That means the top candidates will move from personal appearances to blitzing the airwaves and other media outlets with their mugs, said Larry Giventer, a political science professor at California State University, Stanislaus.

That means money. Any candidate without a sizable cash pot, which could mean former Sens. John Edwards or Fred Thompson, may struggle to buy ad time here.

And because it's a media-intensive state, the odds haven't gotten any better that candidates will visit the valley, Giventer said.

He pointed out that several other states, including Illinois, New York and New Jersey, will vote Feb. 5. And Florida and Nevada will vote before then.

With all those places to campaign, there's not enough time to hit the Golden State with anything but lots of commercials.

The increasing political momentum for February comes with a catch: possible flat interest in the state's June primary.

Though that election will feature several local races of interest, some observers fear it's doomed to be an afterthought.

Hudson, though, said it's a test of one's sense of civic responsibility.

"I understand that in Switzerland, they have seven to eight elections a year," he said. "We're maybe too comfortable with our government. These elections are important, because they can control the direction our country takes."

Bee staff writer Ben van der Meer can be reached at bvandermeer@modbee.com or 578-2331.