The following is a press release from an organization unaffiliated with Voice of OC. The views expressed here are not those of Voice of OC.
Feb. 19, 2016
Updated 6:52 p.m.
By MARTIN WISCKOL / STAFF WRITER
In the latest sign that Orange County is shifting away from its famously conservative roots, Democratic voters now outnumber Republicans in Irvine.
That gives Democrats the advantage in the county's three biggest cities, although Republicans still have a 39.9 percent to 31.9 percent edge countywide.
Also significant is the growth of independent voters in Irvine, which has become the first and only city in the county to have more unaffiliated voters than either Democrats or Republicans. Democrats are 31.8 percent of the city's electorate, Republicans are 31.7 percent and those with no party preference make up 32.4 percent.
The city's ambivalence with party politics is reflected in its electoral behavior, with voters there favoring Barack Obama in 2012 while voting in a GOP City Council at the same time. While the council is officially non-partisan, the parties have long battled for control.
"I think the population is more independent," said Fullerton College political scientist Jodi Balma, pointing to the city'sburgeoning Asian population, high-education level and highly-ranked schools as contributing factors. "A lot of it is Republicans becoming independents and independents moving in who might have registered as Republicans in the past."
The shift in Irvine is the most dramatic of any of the county's largest cities over the past 16 years. In 2000, Republicans were 48 percent of Irvine's registered voters, Democrats were 30 percent and independents were 18 percent.
Republican registration in the county peaked in 1990, when the GOP had a 22-point advantage. Its share of the electorate has been slowly shrinking ever since -- a phenomenon attributed first and foremost to the growing Latino electorate, which heavily favors Democrats.
But in Irvine, the biggest demographic change has been the growing Asian community. In the 2000 census, non-Latino whites were 61 percent of the city's population. That's shrunk to 45 percent, while the Asian population has increased from 30 percent to 39 percent over that period. Latinos are 9 percent of the population.
Nationwide, more than half of Asian voters are foreign born. In Orange County, 73 percent of Asians are foreign born, according to Political Data Inc. Because the population is relatively new to the electoral system in this country, it hasn't developed the strong partisan allegiances seen in other ethnic communities, according to political scientists.
Irvine is notable for having the highest percentage of master's degrees in the county, with 28 percent of those 25 and over holding agraduate-level sheepskin.
Henry Vandermeir, chairman of the Democratic Party of Orange County, thinks recent rhetoric by Republican presidential candidates has helped his party's cause in Irvine.
"I can't take full credit," he quipped. "The GOP has helped us."
Irvine has become the eighth of the county's 34 cities to have more Democrats than Republicans, though Vandermeir was quick to acknowledge the strong independent streak of the electorate. He thinks that ethnic integration has played a role in that, as has ongoing frustration with partisan politics in Washington.
"Irvine is a special city because there's a lot of diversity and it's not concentrated in one section of town," he said. "That's contributed to people being more open and tolerant. ... And they're separating themselves from both parties."
Fred Whitaker, chairman of the Republican Party of Orange County, noted that while his side has lost market share of the city's electorate, they've had growing success in local races there in recent years. He added that GOP voter outreach will be gearing up in the coming months.
"We have an active voter registration program and it will become more active as we get closer to the election," Whitaker said.
However, he stopped short of promising that the GOP would regain the edge among the city's voters.
Contact the writer: mwisckol@ocregister. com