Orange County’s No Party Preference voters are likely to be the key to Democrats holding onto the Congressional seats or Republicans retaking lost ground. 

Orange County’s number of NPP voters nearly doubled in 20 years. In the 2000 general election, 14 percent of voters were registered as NPP. Over 26 percent of the 1.6 million registered voters are no preference, according to Jan. 3 voter registration numbers compiled by the California Secretary of State. 

During that time, Democrats surpassed Republicans in registered voters, going from 32 to 35 percent, while Republicans dropped from 49 to 34 percent. 

Republicans lost all four of the Congressional seats in 2018, which were long considered GOP strongholds for the party. 

“Two years ago, we had the blue wave and we had Democrats take all the [Congressional] seats in Orange County. That’s something that would’ve been considered unprecedented four or five year earlier,” said Chapman University political science professor Mike Moodian. 

Moodian, who specializes in Orange County elections and politics said the NPP voters gave Democrats an edge.

“We see that the No Party Preference voters were the x-factor putting Democrats over the edge  two years ago,” Moodian said. “What we found is that generally Donald Trump is unpopular in Orange County and we found that the No Party Preference sided with the Democratic voters in their dislike of Trump.” 

But the NPP voters tend to have lower turnout rates compared to Republicans and Democrats. 

“Generally speaking, NPP voters have lower turnout rates. As far as I’ve been tracking the last 15 years, it’s usually about 10 percentage points lower,” compared to other parties, said Mindy Romero, founder and director of the University of Southern California’s (USC) California Civic Engagement Project.

“As we grow in NPP voters, what does that mean in the overall electorate in terms of turnout?” Romero said. 

NPP voters are now the second biggest group of voters statewide, surpassing Republicans in June 2018. 

The 2018 elections saw a historic voter turnout for Orange County that ended up flipping four Congressional Districts — long considered Republican strongholds — to Democrats.

Many election experts and observers said the Democratic congressional victories in 2018 were a result of President Donald Trump. 

Trump’s effect on the election was too strong for Republicans to win races in California, said longtime GOP strategist Stu Spencer after the 2018 elections. 

“The Republican congressional candidates lost most districts in the state in this election. Most people voted against Trump — it was a referendum on Trump,” said Spencer, who ran Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial and presidential campaigns. 

Hillary Clinton beat Trump countywide in 2016 and in all of the Congressional Districts, which lead to the national Democratic party targeting the seats in 2018. 

Romero said many local Republicans don’t approve of Trump. 

“There are a lot of Republicans in California, Southern California and Orange County that don’t really like Trump that much or at least have mixed feelings about him. He has turned off a lot of Republicans,” Romero said.

Republicans will have to figure out how to bring voters back into the fold this year, including NPP voters, Romero said. 

Orange County Republican Chairman Fred Whitaker noted some Republicans “defected” in a 2018 post-election newsletter. 

“The losses in California and here in Orange County can only be described as catastrophic,” Whitaker wrote. “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.” 

Not only did a number of Republican break the party line in 2018, over 70 percent of registered voters participated in the 2018 midterm election, the highest since the 1970 midterm election when just over 76 percent of voters casted a ballot

In contrast, nearly 45 percent of voters casted a ballot in 2014 and 2010 saw a 55 percent turnout rate and just over 50 percent in 2010. 

Voter turnout numbers for Orange County and the state show significantly higher participation rates in Presidential election years. 

Moodian, like Romero, said the shift from a Republican Congressional delegation to a Democratic delegation stems from shifting demographics.

“This was different than when we did our poll 10 years ago, NPP’s were more Libertarian, more in line with Republicans. That shifted now … we’re finding that Orange County is now looking more like California. It’s not this outlier anymore of Birch society devotees and John Wayne fanatics,” Moodian said.

Romero said NPP voters are disconnected from traditional politics surrounding elections because the voters are “not on the party’s member rolls and it can be more difficult for NPP voters to get that kind of communication and connection from candidates and parties — outreach and mobilization efforts are typically a big factor in turnouts.” 

“I think what’s a bigger part of the conversation is that you got an electorate that’s more diverse, more people of color, more younger people,” Romero said. “It’s not an uphill battle for Democrats anymore.” 

A Public Policy Institute of California 2018 statewide study showed more NPP voters leaned Democratic than Republican; 43 percent to 29 percent. And most NPP voters said both political parties don’t do an adequate job. The NPP voters also side with Democrats on issues like immigration and global warming, according to the study. 

Because of the changing demographics, political newcomers were able to take all four Republican-held districts in 2018. 

“The reason for this change, in the research that we’re doing, is that people’s minds aren’t changing, is that the devout conservatives in OC is an older demographic and that’s not a growing demographic. And the county’s becoming more diverse,” Moodian said. 

In the 39th Congressional District, then-newcomer Gil Cisneros narrowly beat former Republican Assemblywoman Young Kim. Both are from Fullerton. Kim is again running for the seat, which was formerly held by longtime Republican Congressman Ed Royce, who announced his retirement in early 2018. 

Cisneros beat Kim by about 8,000 votes, although the Orange County portion of the district voted for Kim. The 39th district is spread throughout north OC, western San Bernardino County and the southeastern tip of Los Angeles County and is home to nearly 387,000 registered voters. 

Democrats hold 35 percent of the 387,000 registered voters in the district, while Republicans make up nearly 33 percent. NPP makes up 27 percent of the electorate.

Despite being behind the first few days after the 2018 general election, Cisneros eventually beat Kim by nearly 8,000 votes, largely due to late ballots. 

By the end of last year, the latest available campaign finance data, Cisneros and Kim were just about even in fundraising. 

Cisneros raised $1.39 million and Kim had $1.3 million. 

The Cook Political Report, an election handicapper outlet, considers the 39th district leaning Democratic, just like it did in 2018. Another election handicapper website, Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, considered it a toss up between the two parties in 2018. It now rates the 39th district as leaning Democratic

Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) beat former Congresswoman Mimi Walters for the 45th district seat in 2018 by roughly 12,000 votes. 

She’s facing Mission Viejo Councilman Greg Raths, Laguna Hills Councilman Don Sedgwick, Deputy Attorney General and Yorba Linda Councilwoman Peggy Huang, and Chapman University Dean of Communications Lisa Sparks. 

Republicans make up nearly 36 percent of the district’s 435,000 registered voters, while Democrats are at 32 percent. The NPP voters hold 27 percent of the electorate. 

The Cook Report considers the 48th as leaning Democratic, while Sabato’s Crystal Ball pegs it at likely Democratic. 

By the end of last year, the latest available campaign finance data, Porter raised $3.5 million, Sedgwick had $825,000, Sparks raised nearly $500,000 and Raths had raised nearly $410,000. 

Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Laguna Beach) pulled off one of the biggest upsets in 2018 when he beat Republican Dana Rohrabacher, a nearly 30-year congressman for the coastal 48th District.

Rouda’s biggest challenger this upcoming primary election is OC Supervisor Michelle Steel.

While Rouda’s raised $2.3 million, Steel isn’t far behind at nearly $1.7 million raised. 

Both Crystal Ball and the Cook Report list the district as leaning Democratic. 

“Looking at those districts, I think that’s why Cook is seeing them not as a toss up. I think the electorate is still leaning to Democrats,” said Romero, adding “The fight to control Congress is still there.”  

The 48th District still favors Republicans at nearly 38 percent of the roughly 420,000 registered voters. Democrats, while making steady gains over the past 10 years, have roughly just over 31 percent of the voting pool. NPP voters make up a quarter of the district’s electorate. 

Rouda beat Rohrabacher by 21,000 votes in the 2018 midterm election. 

Romero said NPP voters are likely to vote for the person with more progressive ideas. 

“Still overall young people are likely to hold more progressive policies. I think it’s more about, ‘I don’t think I can count on either party, I want my independence.’ And a growing recognition that NPP is an option and maybe even a sense of this is a smart, savvy thing to do — to not affiliate with a party.”  

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

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