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No party preference (NPP) voters could be the deciding factor in the four pivotal Orange County Congressional races since the group makes up roughly a quarter of voters in the contested U.S. House of Representatives districts.

“It’s everything — it’s absolutely crucial. They’re all tight races according … to the polls that have been done. For the Democrats it’s been crucial, because in a handful of those races they have a slight disadvantage in voter registration,” said Chapman University professor and elections expert Mike Moodian.

“For Republicans in those races, there’s this fear of a blue wave that’s going to come across California and Orange County and they’re really relying on those no party preference voters to carry them over the top. It’s also significant because no party preference voters are a large voting block — they’re comparable in size (to the two major parties).”

Pollster Adam Probolsky, of Newport Beach-based Probolsky Research, said NPP voters are not a single group that can be easily classified.

“They’re not some mono, homogenous group that you can just put in a box. They’re a whole different group of people,” Problosky said.

In Orange County, the number of NPP voters nearly doubled in 18 years. In the 2000 general election, 14 percent of voters were registered as NPP. As of Oct 24, over 27.5 percent of registered voters are NPP. During that same timespan, the share of Republicans dropped from 49 percent to nearly 35 percent. Meanwhile, Democrats experienced a minor increase from 32 to 33.5 percent of voters.

“If you look at county politics, there was once a time when Republicans had a massive edge in voter registration over Democrats. It was a 20-point advantage in the 1990s, but that’s decreased dramatically because we’ve seen a rise in no party preference in Orange County,” Moodian said.  

NPP voters became the second biggest block of voters statewide when the group surpassed Republicans in registration numbers in June, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

Democrats have targeted the 39th, 45th, 48th and 49th Congressional Districts in their bid to secure at least 23 seats in the 435-member House, which would give Democrats majority control. Recent polling by the New York Times and Los Angeles Times show close races in each district. Democrats targeted OC because Hillary Clinton took the county in 2016 — the first Democrat to do so in 80 years.

Mindy Romero, founder and director of the University of Southern California’s (USC) California Civic Engagement Project, tracks the behavior and trends of the NPP voters, among other voter groups. She said many young people are disenchanted with the two major parties and are increasingly registering as no preference.

“People feel like political parties don’t represent them. Really neither party necessarily,” Romero said. “Young people are registering no party preference in big proportions — they’re driving the big no party preference change.”

Romero said it’s part of a statewide trend over the last 20 years.

“First of all, what we see in the last months — it’s a continuation of the trend certainly over the last 20 years or so,” Romero said. “So, steadily, Republican registration has declined in California and at the same time NPP registration has gone up.”

Political Data Inc. Vice President Paul Mitchell said one factor for the NPP increase is DMV voter registrations, which show large NPP registration numbers. He said while some people may be turned off by either party and register as NPP, the ease of DMV registrations could also help explain the increase in NPP voters.

“There’s also I think a mechanical piece. That is we’re seeing a huge skyrocket number of people who register to vote at the DMV. The DMV registrations — more than half of them are coming in as independent (NPP) … more than half of those independents are people who used to be Democrats or Republicans,” Mitchell said.

He attributed it to convenience.

“On the form, it asks if you want to do no party preference or click here to choose from a political party … it seems like a lot of voters are glancing at it, doing it really quickly and not realizing they changed political parties.”

Probolsky said many young voters are distancing themselves from the traditional party system.

“Younger voters in many cases just don’t have an affection for either party … the Republican brand is horrible today and the Democratic brand has been really co-opted by this Democratic socialist, uninformed candidate types,” Problosky said.

California State University, Fullerton political science professor Stephen Stambough, who specializes in political behavior and elections, also said young voters are increasingly registering as NPP.

“And then the others are those who don’t particularly trust the established party system and some of that would be people on the left who are a little — more than a little — critical of some of the establishment in their party,” he said.

But, Stambough said, some NPP voters are Republicans who don’t want the label.

“In a one party-dominant state like California, some of the newer groups of no party preference are Republicans who don’t want to say they’re Republican,” Stambough said.

Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelly released a voter trends report Oct. 12 which found NPP voter numbers increased while Democratic and Republican registration numbers have steadily decreased since 2004.

“While this has impacted registration numbers for both the Republican and Democratic parties, there has been a greater reduction in the number of voters who identify with the Republican Party,” reads the Registrar’s report.

The Public Policy Institute of California conducted a series of polls from Sept. 2017 to July, interviewing nearly 16,700 adults and 8,000 likely voters across the state. Statewide, it found NPP voters “increased more than twofold since the November 1994 gubernatorial race.”

According to the Institute, 58 percent of respondents said Democrats do an inadequate job and 69 percent said Republicans do an inadequate job.

Chapman University professor and elections expert Fred Smoller also said new voters are turned off by both parties.

“With the Republicans, they’re clearly put off by their retrograde positions on guns, the environment, healthcare … gay rights,” Smoller said. “Where Democrats, as we saw in the 2016 election, are perceived to be in line with the upper classes and Wall Street, in Hillary Clinton’s case.”

The Public Policy Institute of California found a majority of NPP voters, 40 percent, have “middle of the road” political ideology, while 32 percent identify as liberal and 29 percent identify as conservative.

The institute also found the NPP vote leans Democratic 43 percent of the time, leans Republican at 29 percent and 28 percent of their votes “lean to neither party.”  

“By the end of the day, they don’t skew anymore than the rest of the population. So in California, it’s a little bit more of a Democratic slant, as opposed to Republicans,” Stambough said.

But it’s difficult to peg where the NPP vote may fall.  

Problosky said although voters may have left the parties, they haven’t left their ideologies.

“I do also think it’s important to understand that a lot of people have left both parties and went to no party preference — they didn’t want to be affiliated with brand anymore. It doesn’t mean they left their social conservatism or progressivism … they just left the brand,” Problosky said.

“So if you’re a no party preference voter in Mission Viejo, you’re going to vote for who your neighbors are voting for, which is the Republican candidate. If you’re a no party preference voter in a more progressive city, like Santa Ana … you’re going to be more progressive, like your neighbors,” Problosky said.

Romero said most NPP voters tend to go Democratic.

“Most people, in California, NPP are going to vote for Democrats,” she said. “So they’ll vote Democrat, but they still want independence from the party.”

Smoller said no preference voters have kept a light relationship with Democrats.

“They’re definitely not Republicans, that’s for certain. And we see that in this state and they kept a tepid relationship with Democrats,” Smoller said.

Moodian said the group tends to lean moderate or Libertarian.

“The no party preference voters tend to be more moderate number one, or tend to be more Libertarian-leaning voters. Those voters who can’t find a home with either party,” Moodian said. “Trump has taken the (Republican) party to the right when it comes to rhetoric against immigrants and against the environment. The Democrats have shifted significantly to the left — we’re seeing some very progressive platforms from candidates statewide.”

But partisan favorability tends to show in the NPP vote, Stambough said.

“There are a lot of people who say they’re no party preference because they vote for the person and not the party, but then you ask who they vote for and it’s people all from the same party,” Stambough said.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.

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