At last, at long last, California is a player in choosing a political party’s presidential candidate. But what voters will be joining the game in next week’s primary, and which ones will be sitting it out? USC’s California Civic Engagement Project does exactly this kind of assessment. Its director, Mindy Romero, is expecting that turnout among California Latinos and Asian Americans could be as big as it was in the 2016 primary. And because those populations are on the rise, that means they could make up a bigger share of primary voters — maybe as high as 30% statewide.
It’s been true for years and it’ll be true this time, too, that while older white California voters are declining in numbers, they vote much more often, in every election, than other groups of Californians. But young Californians, by contrast, aren’t voting as regularly as their parents and grandparents. The youth vote gets a lot of buzz and airtime but many in this group just don’t cast ballots. Romero has some ideas why that’s the case, and she slices and dices the data ahead of California’s extra-Super Tuesday.
On primary day 2020. what will the California voter profile look like? What is our electorate now?
Well, first off, it’s still a primary. So it means that the electorate will not be representative of the state of California. Primary electorates never are. We are expecting it to be, though, a good year for turnout, which means it’ll be a little bit more representative. We’ll see more voters that come out that typically don’t vote in a primary. But it will still be far from representative.
Even in a high-turnout general election, for instance, we know that we’re going to have lower turnout from historically underrepresented groups, lower turnout among Latinos and Asian Americans versus whites, for instance, lower turnout among younger voters than older voters, low income versus higher income.
And those disparities in turnout translate over into a pie of voters in an election that doesn’t look like the rest of the state.
The eligible voting population for California as we approach this primary, what does it look like in terms of age distribution, ethnic, racial distribution?
Well, it has a large racial and ethnic composition to it. So Latinos are almost 40% of the overall population, but among adult citizens eligible to vote, they’re 30%. If we look at Asian Americans, for instance, it’s almost 15% of the eligible voter population. Young people, we’re talking about roughly 14% of the eligible voter population, which is 18 to 24 as we define it. [And] the percentage of the eligible voter population that is African Americans is about 7%.
In 2040, you found the white population of adult citizens eligible to vote will be just about a third of the voting population, and the Latino population to be about 39%. These are pretty substantial changes, aren’t they?
The growth, particularly in the Latino population, has driven not only overall population and the way our population looks and how it’s changed, but it’s also impacted the political landscape in California.
If we look back, looking into the ‘90s and before, we were for quite a while a red state. That’s no secret. Throughout the 1990s, we started to transition into a purple state. And certainly now we’re famously a blue state, although I always say we’re really shades of blue and in many communities red.
But if we look back at around 1994 and Proposition 187, we knew there was a growing Latino population, but that Latino population was split. It was not skewed as Democratic in terms of its registration as we see today. It was a little bit more Democratic than it was Republican, but it wasn’t as skewed.
Prop. 187 was a lightning rod in a number of ways for the Latino community, and the rhetoric, the fear, the reaction from the Latino community really created a footprint in our voter rolls and really has fundamentally changed many aspects of the political landscape in our state.
Latinos in reaction to 187 became more mobilized, certainly, and more specifically, maybe most importantly, their registration became skewed to be more Democratic, much more Democratic than Republican. As the Latino population has grown, not only are there more Latinos, but there are a greater proportion of those Latinos that are Democratic. And that has helped to make our state a blue state and has impacted electoral politics in many areas of the state.
Many argue there are certainly opportunities in the Republican Party — at least have been historically — for Latinos to affiliate. The problem is, at least in the somewhat near future, I don’t think that Republicans will have had much of a future in the state.
There is a narrative that was set with Prop. 187 in 1994 that Republicans, or at least the leadership, are anti-Latino, or threatening to the Latino community, or at the very least, don’t have the interests of the Latino community.
That narrative has been reinforced, unfortunately, by much of the rhetoric at the presidential level. And just when I think a lot of folks were thinking that maybe the new generation was coming up in California, any young people not remembering what happened with Prop. 187 — maybe there was an opportunity for the Republican Party [to revive itself among Latinos]. And then Donald Trump came along, and then the rest of the United States, of course. Donald Trump and the rhetoric that he’s used, also many policies that Latinos find offensive or disconcerting, has also set this narrative on a national level, that Republicans are not in the best interests in the [Latino] community.
Is immigration still the top driving issue for Latino voters?
If you’re asking me like, if it’s an issues poll, for instance, and you’re asking what are people concerned about, that’s one thing. If you’re asking in terms of political candidacies and campaigns, for many Latinos, they may not list immigration as No. 1 in terms of the issues that are on their minds. But when it comes to selecting a political candidate, immigration can be one of the top concerns and can sometimes be a litmus test — not only their position on immigration, but how they talk about immigration, how they talk about the Latino community. That can say volumes often, or at least is interpreted for many Latinos that will indicate whether a candidate is even potentially viable for them to consider.
We will see things like jobs and the economy; for younger Latinos, often social justice issues, racism and the environment will be something that’s cited. But we have in California, in recent times, homeless rising to a top concern — in this case the No. 1 concern, according to our poll.
And immigration is always there.
The general vibe is that young people are very engaged and very attentive and they vote in high numbers. What has happened to that young vote? Does it vote in the kind of numbers that this attention would suggest?
The short answer is no. We would define “young” as 18 to 23, 18 to 29. The one consistent thing we know is that turnout is going to be substantially — 20, 30, 40 percentage points — lower than older age groups, in any given election.
If we just look at our most recent presidential primary race in 2016, that turnout for a citizen 18 to 24 years old, their rate was 17.1%.
Now, compare that to the prior overall primary turnout; that number was 33%.
I think right now, particularly in the context that we’re in, a lot of young people are all following politics. We hear from a lot of young people. We see marches, for instance, on issues like gun violence.
But we don’t see it always translating into voting. And if you think about it, it actually makes some sense: Young people get this bad rap that these low numbers like 17.1% seems to, for many, translate into “young people don’t care.”
Young people do care. They are very interested. There’s many issues that relate to their community and so forth that they actually take action on. They ask, why is voting an actionable step on something I care about? I don’t hear from candidates. I don’t hear from campaigns. I’m unsure about the voting process. But I know if I take this tangible action in my community, or talk to friends and family, or get on social media, I’m at least doing something that’s real, real to them. And they don’t see why voting itself actually gets them anywhere.
They may want to vote. They may think it’s important, but they are kind of intimidated by that process.
Of course, voting is part of making change on issues that we all care about. And I think making that change for young people can be difficult, but it can be done.
In the case of Asian American voters, by 2040, they’ll be 17.6% of the eligible voter population. Where are Asian American voters in this profile?
You know, I think it’s a complicated picture. Within the Asian American population, obviously, it’s not a monolithic group. We also see and hear campaigns sometimes complain that trying to pin down a community can be difficult as well, in terms of outreach and education around voting to try to make their case to a candidate.
I think political activism is playing a role — reactions to the Trump presidency, for instance, and many of those doing outreach in Asian American communities are often doing it around the context of fears around immigration and reactions to the rhetoric that we’re hearing.
In communities where we have large congressional districts, for instance, or legislative districts where we have large Asian American populations, we’ll see a lot of mobilization around those communities,
That brings up a question that creates perhaps a paradox — that generally, you get better turnout in presidential elections, high-profile elections. Do Asian American communities, some Latino communities, vote in higher numbers for local elections, local issues, because there may be candidates who represent them, who are Latino or Asian American, and who reach out to them in a better and more consistent fashion than people further up the political food chain?
There’s always exceptions to the rule, and certainly at a local level where if you have a local candidate that really connects with our community, with a Latino or Asian American community, we can see kind of a higher turnout number than we normally would expect.
But still, generally speaking, what drives turnout is the top of the ticket. If it’s a gubernatorial race, if it’s a presidential race, and the level of competition that’s there, the top of the ticket is often what’s going to be driving [turnout] and what people are most aware of.
Most people don’t understand or fully know all their local politicians and issues, unfortunately, even though they have a huge impact on their lives.
It seems to me that non-Latino white voters still, for all their declining numbers in California, still have a higher turnout rate — which is to say, a smaller gap between eligible to vote, registered to vote, and actual voters — than other demographic groups do. Is that true?
It is, essentially. The gap widens or narrows depending on the election. You can register somebody from a historically underrepresented group. There’s no guarantee that that person will turn out. It’s the first important step to getting them to turn out to vote. But the case for actually voting still needs to be made. The outreach to get out the vote efforts still needs to happen.
It seems like a lot of campaigns forget that, because we see campaigns across our state that will do a lot of work on registering people, but won’t do the follow-up on election day or leading up to election day; what they do is pretty minimal. It’s not enough to overcome the barriers that historically underrepresented groups like Latinos and Asian Americans and young people have.