By the numbers: Digging into California’s voter spectrum
In politics and media, smart accurate information is essential. For politicos, good data helps make for more precise strategy and more inspiring campaigns. In journalism, it provides important context that helps determine what best to cover, who to magnify as sources, and how to produce more useful and dependable information for readers and viewers.
Unfortunately nowadays, most quality data is in the hands of establishment quarters who have the means to pay for granular polling, focus groups and message testing. We see this most clearly in politics as most money comes from deep-pocketed corporations and super-wealthy individuals, but whose polling and political priorities are quite different from the average voter.
And few media outlets fund much of their own polling as they had 20 and 30 years ago. This has removed important third-party sources of information, especially in most political races below major statewide races. It also means more journalism is conducted without an accurate understanding of the size of the different sides involved. This has allowed some minority views to be magnified and other more broadly held views to be under-covered.
However, a raft of generally untapped free data does exist to combat these blind spots. In this edition of “By The Numbers,” these sources have been tapped to examine one of the most fundamental and misunderstood aspects of California politics: who are California voters ideologically and what are their numbers across the political spectrum.
The graphic atop this article shows the current distribution of voters throughout California as extrapolated through these data sources. For most readers, this likely includes many surprises. Below, we will go through each category and subcategory, and explain where the data came from and any assumptions.
The basic building block must be the regularly updated voter registration data from the California Secretary of State’s office. The most recent set was released Jan. 4. It breaks down the state’s 22 million currently registered voters into self-identified categories of Democratic affiliation, GOP affiliation, and “other.” The latter mostly comprises “no party preference” (NPP) voters but also a smaller number of third parties, with the largest being American Independent, Libertarian and Green.
Every party’s share of the vote is always changing, but usually marginally. But since 2006, the general direction in the state has resulted in the GOP losing nearly 11 points of its registration share, with the Indy/NPP category gaining the most most (6.6 points), and the Democrats gaining 5 points.
In fact, despite the statewide recall petition drive and the California GOP’s claims that the recall helped rebuild its party ranks, evidence is actually the opposite. Voter registration data last year showed that from Feb. 10 to Aug. 30, Republican registrations actually dropped by 48,639. Meanwhile, California Democrats – already with nearly twice as many registered voters as the CAGOP – added a net 37,753 registrations.
In most ways these three categories (Democrat, GOP and Indy/NPP) are actually too broad to be useful for any smart strategic purposes. Even with Democrats at 46.7%, they still don’t enjoy a majority share, and there are great divisions within their ranks as well. So a deeper dive is needed.
But before drilling deeper, it’s still worth understanding where the state is at the most macro level. This means “red versus blue,” as crude as this snapshot can be. This would determine how the Indy/NPP actually lean on election day. So when people say California is a “blue state,” what is the exact statistical justification for this? As a good guide, let’s look to the results of the 2021 gubernatorial recall, in which 61.9% of voters said no to the recall.
I use this number as the best estimate of California’s “blueness.” Is it perfect? No. Certainly there were some left-leaning voters who voted yes to the recall and selected a Democratic replacement choice. But there may have also been conservative voters who voted against the recall, offended by it as the waste of time and public money. Might these categories cancel each other out? Perhaps, but ultimately it’s impossible to empirically know.
One could also quibble that only 58.5% of eligible voters participated in the 2021 recall. So perhaps 61.9% overestimates (or underestimates) how blue California is. By comparison, 81% of registered Californians turned out for the 2020 general election, motivated by the Biden-Trump contest at the top of the ticket. This represented California’s highest turnout since the first post-Watergate presidential election in 1976. Thus might this provide a more accurate measure?
Interestingly, no. Biden won California in 2020 with 63.5%. This was 1.6 points higher than the final percentage against recalling Newsom. However, this higher figure for Biden certainly includes many anti-Trump GOP votes than anti-recall GOP votes. Plus if we are going to err with our benchmark numbers, always better to err conservatively.
But even with this more “conservative” figure, it’s clear why it has been more than a decade since any Republican has won a statewide California office, and why no major Republicans are attempting to run for U.S. Senator, governor or any of the other statewide offices this cycle.
At the macro-level, registered Democrats make up 46.7% of California’s voting population. But let’s call the true Democratic voter universe at that 61.9% recall number. This is what we can also the overall “left-leaning” vote.
A couple ways exist to segment this category further. The most common currently is between the “Progressives” and the “Establishment/Moderates.” Their relative sizes are well argued over but usually without reference to available underlying data. This must start with March 2020 Democratic primary. Results show 49.2% of California voters who took a Democratic primary ballot voted for either of the top two progressive candidates in Bernie Sanders (36%) or Elizabeth Warren (13.2%).
By comparison, the top two moderate candidates (Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg) combined for 40%. One can argue this included some voters who may have preferred progressive policy positions but were swayed by the electability argument for Biden. But however those voters weighed the different pro’s and con’s, when push came to shove, they voted with the moderate camp in a highly competitive Democratic field of candidates and before Biden made his surprising national surge to lock up the nomination. So they belong there.
This leaves nearly 11 points of the 2020 Democratic primary vote that went to other presidential candidates. It would not be fair to simply split this subcategory evenly between Progressives and Moderates. An examination of those other candidates recommends moving 7 points of this remaining vote to the moderate category, and 4 points to the Progressives. These 4 points represent votes for other progressive candidates like Tom Steyer and from some voters who chose Andrew Yang exclusively for his universal income proposal. This also factors in some unique support for other situations and candidates. For example, Pete Buttigieg attracted some support as the first openly homosexual major candidate for a presidential nomination, but whose platform was otherwise more moderate than the voters’ normal preference.
This boosts the Progressive vote among left-leaning voters to 53%. Among all registered California voters, this translates into Progressives who are also registered Democrats representing a 24.8% share to 21.9% for non-progressive registered Democrats.
One limitation to segmenting registered Democrats only between Progressives and Moderates is you lose the nuances of the real tug-of-war within the party between these two factions. That’s because the fight in the Democratic Party isn’t really over “converting” the other well-entrenched side. The actual fight is over a distinct third category of registered Democrats in between. These are what I call the “head/heart” Democrats. In their hearts, they support progressive issues like a universal $15 minimum wage and single-payer, but their heads are often swayed by the Moderates’ electability appeal. For a deeper dive on this, see this article.
Some of the cognitive dissonance of this category is reflected in the below polling from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). This shows 65% of self-identifying Democrats consider themselves "liberal,” but obviously during important primaries, a sizable fraction vote with the Moderates. So the challenge for Progressives is to prove to this category of voters that Progressives are electable, which can only be proven by running more candidates and winning more often. But outside of San Francisco and Los Angeles, that has proven a challenge for Progressives, as examined in this previous article.
Voter registration data gives us the raw figures for how many voters self-identify as either no party preference (NPP) or third party/independent. That’s a whopping 29.3% of the registered electorate and five full points greater than GOP registrations. But the Indy/NPP category is very diverse. It stretches to include members of far-right and far-left third parties like the American Independents and the Democratic Socialists of America. It also includes a huge number of voters who otherwise have very traditional Democratic and Republican views but have rejected both parties for a variety of reasons.
But fortunately, we are able segment the Indy/NPPs further. First, we know California voters who de-affiliated from the Republican Party account for a large part of this category’s growth. Since 2006, Republican registration share has dropped more than 10 points. Meanwhile the Democratic share has only grown by 1.4 points over that time.
This doesn’t mean all of the GOP’s lost registrations de-affiliated. A portion of the GOP’s lost share is from deaths not replaced by new voters. Plus thanks to motor-voter law changes, total number of registered voters has grown by nearly 40% since 2006, going from 15,810,412 to the current 22,005,243 number of registered voters. But relatively few of those new voters went to the GOP column to replace deaths and de-affiliations.
But it would be a mistake to consider the Indy/NPP category largely right-leaning. In fact, the opposite is true. One sees this in the statewide vote totals for governor and president, with the Democratic candidates regularly improving on the inherent Democratic voter registration advantage spread over Republicans.
Sept. 2021 polling data from the PPIC further confirms this. According to their surveys, independent voters have been somewhat more likely to lean Democratic (52%) than Republican (36%); 12% did not lean toward either party. (Of the entire electorate, this translates to 15.2% leans blue, 10.5% leans GOP, and 3.6% neither as shown in the chart at the top of this article.)
Bottomline, none of this is great news for California Republicans. The Republican share of the California vote (24%) is not only less than Indy/NPP, but also less than the progressive subcategory (24.8%). For all intents and purposes, California GOP can be considered 4th among political parties/factions, yet is still treated by media outlets as the second-most important by weight and representation in news stories.
The news gets even worse for the state GOP when examined in greater detail. Though major media outlets nationally and within California focus inordinate attention on the Progressive/Moderate split among Democrats, the fissures among Republicans are actually far greater and damaging. In California, this is first seen in the above-mentioned loss of registration share lost to the Indy/NPP category. Though these lost registrations may not be voting for Democrats, they aren’t eager to be associated with the Republican Party.
These defections started in 2010 with the rise of the anti-establishment Tea Party within the GOP and continued in the Trump era with the never-Trumpers and other traditional Main Street conservative Republicans de-affiliating. While it is not possible to determine the exact proportions of California Trump Republicans to traditional conservative Republicans, it seems clear Trumpers dominate the California GOP.
Take last year when many in the state GOP leadership hoped to consolidate behind a single mainstream Republican in the recall election. The strategic hope was that such a candidate could also appeal to the sizable category of Indy/NPP voters and other persuadable voters disappointed in Newsom. Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer was seen as the preferred candidate in this respect. But when far-right talk show host Larry Elder entered the race late and the majority of GOP party delegates rejected backing an establishment so-called “Republican in Name Only” (RINO) candidate like Faulconer or 2018 GOP nominee John Cox, the party decided against making any endorsement.
Ultimately Elder received 70% of the 5 million replacement candidate votes given all the Republican candidates. Faulconer and Cox combined for just under 18%. This figure probably doesn’t represent the true CAGOP split, as some traditional GOP voters may have been against any recall and not turned out.
Either way, the Trump portion of the CAGOP is certainly dominant. This led the party to endorse many QAnon Congressional candidates in 2020 and since then not distance itself from individuals with hate group, militia and other radical ties. This also led to more conservative candidates running as independents and winning. This included Asm. Chad Mayes, Sacramento County Supervisor Rich Desmond and current California Attorney General candidate Anne Marie Schubert.
Maybe the best estimation of how much of the CAGOP are Trump Republicans would be how many believe Trump was robbed of the presidency in 2020. Nationally, polls put this figure anywhere between 50%-75% of all Republicans. But no similar polling exists for California Republicans. The best found was a PPIC poll that said 49% of Californian Republicans had very little to no confidence in the state election system. This is a huge number, and it would certainly be higher if it also included California Republicans who have some faith in California election system but feel other state’s “fraudulent” systems cost Trump the election.
So where to place that line? I decided to cut the difference in the national polling between 50% and 75%, and estimated 62.5% of the California GOP to be Trump Republicans. This is lower than Elder’s 70%, but anywhere in this vicinity, the state GOP does not appear to be in a great position to take advantage if some great scandal or calamity of confidence befell the Democratic Party.
The most likely scenario for a conservative to win statewide would be a Faulconer type running as an independent. So watch that Anne Marie Schubert attorney general race.
California has a reputation as a highly liberal state, but this has not translated into being a more progressive state. Corporate-backed Democrats continue to have disproportionate influence at the state and national party and in elected offices held. But data shows the old presumption that progressive voters are a small fraction of the Democratic Party is no longer true. Progressive voters are now the largest voting block in the state and the majority of the California Democratic Party.
But recognition of this lags, including among Progressives themselves. This has allowed the money advantage of the corporate-backed moderate Democrats to persuade enough “head/heart” Democrats to vote against their progressive hearts. It has also perpetuated the bias among most media outlets that any candidate without corporate financial backing has no competitive chance and thus is given little media coverage – creating a self-fulfilling circle.
However, this same bias doesn’t work against Republican candidates. They are at extreme competitive disadvantages in terms of both voting base and fundraising. Yet, legacy assumptions among major media outlets continue to allow them to project a political presence far larger than should befit the fourth largest voter faction in the state.
But perhaps if the public, political community and media outlets better understood the actual breakdown of the California political spectrum, that might make for stronger and more effective media coverage of public issues, campaigns and political representation.
For additional California polling data, see this piece on 2020 presidential exit polling.