Republican voter registration tanks in California as fewer voters choose a party

Californians may be more disenchanted with political party labels than at any time in modern history, as new voter registration data show another shift away from party affiliation coming at the same time as a presidential race that exposes deep partisan divides nationwide.

The report issued by Secretary of State Alex Padilla on Monday finds that 24% of California voters now officially have "no party preference," the term used by elections officials to describe independents. That's up almost three percentage points since the last presidential election in 2012.

While the migration away from Californians picking formal party labels has been evident for most of the past decade, the trend has picked up speed since 2008.

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"The Democratic share of registrants has been flat, the independent share has been climbing fast, and the Republican share has been sinking just as fast," said Eric McGhee, an elections researcher at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

The newly released report shows the gap between Democratic and Republican voter registration is now more than 15 points. Republicans represent less than 28% of the state's electorate, a drop of almost three points since the start of the 2012 election cycle.

Democrats, while also shrinking in overall share, retain their plurality of voters at 43% of registration.

The shift to a less centralized political landscape in California is likely to accelerate, said McGhee, given the generational differences between younger and older voters.

"New, young registrants are heavily independent and to a lesser extent Democratic, while elderly people are much more likely to be Republican," he said. "Since people tend to stick with their party registration even if their politics change, this means we should expect these registration trends to continue."

While elections officials sample the size and contours of the electorate annually, the trend away from political parties is most easily seen in the context of previous presidential election years.

In the January 2008 report, almost one in five California voters were unaffiliated with a political party. In the last open presidential election, 2004, only 16% of voters were counted in the category of independent.

Republicans have suffered the greatest blow from the shifting allegiances of California voters. No statewide GOP candidate has been elected since 2006, and the party's share of the electorate since then has plummeted by seven percentage points.

Mike Madrid, a Republican political strategist, attributes this to "the national brand." As a result, he says, most unaffiliated voters aren't in play for GOP candidates.

"More Californians are consciously saying no party represents my views, but are saying if they have to choose, then they'll choose Democrats," he said.

The new report also finds voter registration lagging growth in voting age population -- 70% of eligible Californians are now registered to vote, compared with 72% in 2012.

"If the election were held today, over 7 million otherwise eligible Californians would be left on the sidelines," said Secretary of State Padilla in a written statement.

Those numbers are likely to rise as the November election nears, and perhaps even sooner if either presidential nomination is still up for grabs when California's primary rolls around on June 7.

Madrid says that because so few states release voter data by political party as California does, these numbers may be the best reflection there is of the nation's increasingly polarized electorate. And the first casualty in California may be Republicans, he says, and soon. The size of the independent electorate could easily surpass GOP registration by the next presidential election.

"That's going to be a very significant moment," he said.

john.myers@latimes.com

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