Given such history, voter turnout is never taken lightly by strategists. This year, some see it as a critical force in California's neck-and-neck U.S. Senate race. Democrats, in particular, fear that President Clinton's sex scandal could motivate Republicans and depress turnout by Democrats. Sen. Barbara Boxer, facing a challenge from Republican state Treasurer Matt Fong, could pay the price.
Voter turnout also is expected to play a key role in the rematch between Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) and Robert K. Dornan, the Republican who lost his central Orange County congressional seat to Sanchez two years ago. Early polls show Sanchez with a commanding lead in the race, one of the most closely watched in the country, but she won the seat in 1996 by just 984 votes. Her victory was aided by a high voter turnout in the district--46%, which was higher than the national average.
This month, the independent Field Poll predicted that 44% of the state's eligible voters will turn out in the upcoming election--down a bit from the last governor's election in 1994 but still higher than the one in 1990. Many Democratic campaign consultants are worried enough to double-time their outreach programs in hopes of rallying the faithful. The academic experts are more skeptical, but not prepared to dismiss turnout as a decisive factor.
"These effects are not usually very substantial," Wolfinger said. "But if you take all of the wind out of all the sails of the Democratic campaign workers and you fill the sails of the Republican campaign workers, that can make a difference."
That turnout invariably affects elections is not the only bit of conventional wisdom that is quietly exploded by specialists in the field. Another is the perception that low voter turnout is a modern development--one more example of the me-first generation's indifference to responsibility.
Actually, California's turnout in the last race for governor was just four percentage points below the average for the past century, according to the state's official election records.
And although turnout has dropped about 10% since the activism of the 1960s (compared to a 13% slide nationwide), it is still higher today than it was earlier in the century.
Compared to other democracies, however, the United States ranks just above dead-last Switzerland in the proportion of citizens who vote. Among states, California is in the middle of the pack.
Many, like Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles), believe such low participation affects government after elections. Lawmakers, he said, need to feel they are being watched. "The biggest danger to our democracy is the lack of participation," he warned, "and voting is the first basic step."
District Boundaries Are Key Factor
But the political reality is that more voters are a headache for incumbents. A larger constituency means more doors to knock on, more luncheon speeches to deliver and much higher campaign costs.
"You've got to remember the contortions that incumbents go through to try to suppress a turnout," said Republican strategist Alan Hoffenblum. "They like having their friends voting and an electorate where they have more control."
One such contortion involves campaign finance laws, Hoffenblum said. Despite repeated efforts, incumbent lawmakers--in Congress and the state Legislature--have scuttled efforts to reform campaign finance rules.
Perhaps the most significant contortion is reapportionment--the redrawing every 10 years of new political boundaries.
Researchers agree that competition between candidates is a sure-fire way to boost turnout. And making political districts more competitive is not a difficult task: You simply draw the lines in a way that includes a better balance of voters from each major party.
Trouble is, that job lies in the hands of incumbent state lawmakers, who frankly have little incentive to increase competition--or voter turnout.
As a result, most districts are populated by such a dramatic imbalance of Republicans or Democrats that analysts consider the seat to be safe for the incumbent party.
In California's 172 legislative and congressional districts, the average advantage for the majority party is more than 20%. Illustrated simply, a district with 60% Democratic voters would have about 40% Republicans.
One dramatic example is Democratic Assemblyman Gil Cedillo's lopsided Assembly district in downtown Los Angeles. His party claims 65% of the district's voters, compared with just 17% who are registered Republican. Barely 1 in 5 of the district's voters cast a ballot in the last governor race.
Residents of such districts are not just left without a significant choice for local office; they are also virtually ignored in most elections by those who benefit from their votes. With limited resources, state political parties make their biggest efforts to activate voters in the relatively few competitive areas of the state.