Republicans had to look for a very long time at last week’s Field Poll of California voters to find something remotely uplifting as they ponder the 2010 state elections. There it was, eventually: Against San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat running for governor, the assorted GOP candidates were losing by only single digits.
But they were losing to Newsom, a candidate who was behind in his own party’s primary by 20 points and who had a net unfavorable rating among all voters questioned by the poll. Former governor and current Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown was clocking not only Newsom but also his potential GOP general election foes, each by more than 20 points.
Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, like Brown a longtime punching bag and fundraising tool to the Republican Party, was also running double digits ahead of her two potential Republican challengers in the 2010 race.
All told, even as Democrats find themselves on the defensive nationally, California inhabits a different political planet. There is no hint of a backlash against incumbents of the sort that Republicans nationally have hoped will help them gain seats in Congress and in statehouses. That is key in California, given the experience of the Democratic candidates and the neophyte nature of the biggest-named Republicans.
Just as troubling to Republicans, the poll served to remind them of the continued Democratic hold on younger voters. Unless arrested and reversed, it could eventually make the party’s current challenging times look rosy in the rear-view mirror.
True, blizzards of attack ads have yet to fall. True, the only poll that counts -- as losing candidates often proclaim -- is the one on election day. And true, polls can be on soft ground as they measure match-ups featuring many candidates -- in this case mostly the Republicans -- about whom voters know little.
“I don’t necessarily think the Republicans don’t stand a chance,” as Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo put it.
Right now, however, there is one group in which they really don’t, and that is among younger voters. The conundrum for the state Republican Party and its candidates: how to get ethnically diverse voters who demand healthcare reform and environmental protection to side with a party associated with neither, and whose icon remains a former president elected before they were born.
In match-ups against Republicans in the race for governor, both Brown and Newsom did better as voters grew younger, although Brown also won among older voters. Taking the hint, GOP state party chief Ron Nehring blasted Brown via press release for his “last failed governorship.”
Democrats have a driving impetus to corral younger voters in 2010. Generally speaking, newcomers are perceived to be free-floating and unattached in their early voting years; a party that manages to attract them for several elections in a row stands a good chance of keeping them indefinitely.
Many of the young voters in question streamed to the polls for the first time in 2008. If Democrats’ dreams are realized, the youngsters will stick with the party -- much as young voters attracted in 1980 to President Reagan formed the bulwark of the conservative revival of the 1990s and beyond.
“If they can get them for two to three election cycles, they’re pretty much locked in,” said Republican pollster Steve Kinney. That said, he added, “that’s easier said than done.”
In California, for one thing, many of the young did not register as Democrats but as “decline-to-state” voters with allegiance to candidate over party. Nonpartisan voters are the swiftest-growing class of California voters and, according to Kinney, fully half of those who registered that way between 2006 and 2008 were under 30.
Trying to reach them where they live, Republicans this week will unveil a pod-cast available on ITunes in which party chief Nehring and guests discuss issues and GOP positions. Party leaders are also becoming Twitter-philes and are active on Facebook.
“Everyone knows the other team did a better job harnessing technology last time,” said Nehring. Unlike their parents, the new voters “are getting a plurality of their news online, so we have to be there.”
The GOP argument to them is that the party’s historic advocacy of lower taxes will translate into more jobs. “We want to be sure that young people can stay here,” he said. “California’s economy is in the tank, and in the tank in part because we have economic policies in this state that drive jobs elsewhere.”
Democrats, too, are trying to attract voters through “text messaging, Twitter, e-mail, the whole thing,” said party chairman John Burton. Unlike Republicans, Democrats have opened their party primary to nonpartisan voters, in part to help lure young voters in.
“If you’re young and you’re concerned with things, whatever it is -- jobs, global warming . . . -- clearly the future for people is within the Democratic Party,” he said.
The fight for younger voters is likely to be a long-term siege. Unlike the 2008 election, when younger voters embraced President Obama’s reach for history, the 2010 California elections stand to involve less compelling candidates against a backdrop of spiraling state difficulties.
“They have this interest in it,” pollster Kinney said of the upcoming elections. “The difference is: Do they have interest and passion? Or do they just have interest?”
Each Sunday, The Week examines implications of major stories. It is archived at latimes.com/theweek