Democrats now have a slight edge in voter registration after overtaking Republicans in Orange County by 89 registered voters Wednesday, according to countywide data from the OC Registrar of Voters.
But countywide voter registration trends dating back to 2005 show Democrats haven’t significantly increased their registration numbers in OC. Instead, Republicans have been steadily losing ground while the No Party Preference (NPP) voters have steadily increased. But Democrats have made some gains.
“We’ve seen this gradual decline in Republican registration advantage, year by year,” said Chapman University professor and elections expert Mike Moodian. “What does surprise me a little bit is how quickly this happened. I did not think that we would see a Democratic lead in voter registration this quickly and I attribute to a couple things. Number one, the change in demographics in the county.”
In 2005, there were 453,000 registered Democrats compared to 723,000 registered Republicans, an 18-percentage point difference. There were 262,000 NPP voters during that time.
As of Wednesday, there were 547,385 registered Democrats and 547,394 registered Republicans, while NPP voters are 440,670.
“One example comes to mind the Latino electorate — almost three to one more likely to vote Democratic versus Republican,” Moodian said, adding that people under 34 are trending Democrat, reversing the Republican trend from nearly 20 years ago.
And three of the four contested Congressional Districts, which Democrats managed to flip in 2018, still have more registered Republicans than Democrats.
Democrats have a small edge in the north Orange County’s 39th Congressional District with 130,500 voters compared to 124,800 registered Republicans. NPP voters trail at 110,300 voters.
Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-Yorba Linda) beat former Assemblywoman Young Kim (R-Fullerton) for the seat in the 2018 election. The seat was held for 25 years by former Rep. Ed Royce, who announced his retirement in January 2018. Kim has announced she plans to run for the 39th district again in 2020.
Although Democrats managed to take the former Republican strongholds of the 39th, 45th, 48th and 49th Congressional Districts, Republicans held onto a seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors during the March special election when then-Irvine Mayor Don Wagner beat former Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez. The seat was vacated by Todd Spitzer after he beat Tony Rackackaus in the District Attorney race.
Orange County, birthplace of President Richard Nixon, has been nationally known as a Republican stronghold for decades.
Registrar of Voters Neal Kelly said Republicans held the edge since between late 1979 and 1980 until Tuesday.
Local college professors and experts in Orange County elections credited significant Democratic gains — both in the state Legislature and the House of Representatives — to Republicans in OC not doing enough to distance themselves from President Donald Trump. The experts said the local GOP is going to have to distance itself from national politics to regain the seats the party lost.
“So it’s being driven by new voters in the county and then the elephant in the room — what I think is really accelerated this — has been the Trump factor,” Moodian said.
In a Nov. 26 email newsletter, OC GOP Chairman Fred Whitaker acknowledged some Republicans voted for Democrats in the 2018 general election.
“As a matter of fact, on many of the preliminary vote totals we’ve been looking at – significant numbers of Republicans we turned out, look to have voted Democrat. Whether it was on healthcare or the limitations on mortgage interest and state tax deductions, some of our voters defected,” Whitaker wrote to email subscribers of the OC GOP.
In a podcast with Voice of OC Publisher Norberto Santana Jr., Whitaker said Republicans need to localize races in the 2020 elections in their attempt to take back legislative seats lost to Democrats. The new Democratic super majority in the state legislature could benefit Republicans, Whitaker said.
“Democrats will be unable to help themselves and they will overstep and more likely they’ll overstep on people’s Prop 13 protection, they’ll over step on income taxes, other forms of taxation and fees. And, just like you’re seeing in France, your average working person is just going to say, ‘enough.’ So I think if we just focus on those bread and butter issues … and not let ourselves get nationalized in the election, we’ll do better,” Whitaker said.
Hillary Clinton beat Trump by eight percentage points, over 102,000 votes, in the 2016 election. It was the first time a Democrat won the presidential election in Orange County since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936.
For Orange County, the biggest Congressional upset in the 2018 election was when Harley Rouda ousted 30-year Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in the 48th Congressional District.
According to Chapman University’s Orange County’s annual survey 2019, 76 percent of Republicans surveyed approve of Trump, 95 percent of Democrats disapprove of Trump and a majority of people surveyed who were neither party, 65 percent, disapproved of Trump.
Taken altogether, 61 percent of those surveyed disapproved while 39 percent approved.
And regardless of political party, a solid majority of respondents disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job.
Studies have shown that many NPP voters tend to lean Democratic on many issues, but some experts have previously told Voice of OC many NPP voters are former Republicans who don’t want to be affiliated with the party.
“We see that county residents who are no party preference are usually aligned with Democrats on issues such as climate change, DACA (Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals), paths to citizenship for individuals who are here undocumented,” Moodian said.
“My guess is that the Republican strategists next year and the years to come are going to see no party preference voters as areas of strategy … and they’re probably hoping that the Democrats continue to shift further to the left where they could be conceived as out of touch,” Moodian said.
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.
Moodian summed up the trends that have been the change in voter registration since before Trump was elected.
“The short answer: changing demographics in the county, the youth, the Latino vote, the Asian American vote; and Republicans in the county trend older and white and that’s not a growth demographic in OC. So all those variables combined lead to what we have today,” Moodian said.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio