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Democrats savor GOP snub of state's undeclared voters

January 21, 2008|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

SAN MATEO — Medea Bern, once a registered Republican, is one of a growing number of California voters who shun party membership and declare themselves independent. In the upcoming presidential election, that makes her the kind of voter all the candidates would like to reach.

But when it comes to California's Feb. 5 primary, there is only one major party where she's welcome: the Democratic Party. She isn't allowed to cast her ballot in the Republican primary, and that upsets her.

She might be inclined to vote for Republican Sen. John McCain, but instead finds herself weighing a choice between Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"It really makes me mad," she said. "I haven't decided which candidate to vote for, but I'm not happy that my voice is eliminated on the Republican side. Don't they trust the independent vote?"

Unlike the New Hampshire primary, where huge numbers of independents were embraced by both parties, California's independents will be limited to the Democratic or American Independent Party primaries.

Some political analysts -- including some Republicans -- say the California Republican Party blundered when it decided last year that only registered Republicans could vote in its presidential primary, unlike 2004.

"It's pretty hard to build a big tent if you don't let anybody else in," said Dan Schnur, a veteran Republican political consultant. "It doesn't make sense for a party that wants to and needs to broaden its base to throw this kind of obstacle in the path of an independent voter who wants to hang out with us."

Not surprisingly, the Democratic Party is delighted at the prospect of attracting hundreds of thousands of independents to vote for one of its candidates next month. Democratic strategists believe that an independent who votes Democratic in February is likely to vote for a Democratic candidate in November too.

"The Republicans have been caught with their pants down," said Democratic Party campaign advisor Bob Mulholland. "The Republicans are going to create a lot of anger out there."

In California, the number of voters who decline to register with a party has soared to 19.3%, double the 1992 percentage.

At the same time, the number of registered Democrats has fallen to 42.7% and the number of Republicans has declined to 33.6%, according to the office of Secretary of State Debra Bowen.

That means that 62% of California voters can cast ballots in the Feb. 5 Democratic primary, nearly double the number who will be eligible to vote in the Republican race.

"Republicans have made the serious, perhaps fatal, error of shutting independent voters out of their primary," said Garry South, who was a top advisor to former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. "The thing we know about independents is, when they choose to vote in a primary, they tend to stay with that party" in the general election.

In California, independent voters have tended to reflect the state's majority views, merging a comparatively conservative view on fiscal matters like taxes with a more liberal perspective on social issues, like abortion rights and support for the environment.

The official designation for independents in California is "decline to state." Also on the ballot will be the American Independent Party, once championed by segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace and John Schmitz, a conservative former California congressman. Some analysts believe that that party remains alive in California because voters mistakenly sign up thinking they are registering as independents. The fact that the American Independent Party primary is also open to decline-to-state voters this year may only add to the confusion.

California Republican Party spokesman Hector Barajas said his party decided to exclude unaffiliated voters in February in the belief that only registered Republicans should be able to select the presidential nominee.

In addition, he said, party officials were concerned that independents could band together and create mischief in a handful of congressional districts where unaffiliated voters outnumber Republicans.

That includes the Peninsula district south of San Francisco, where Bern, a freelance writer, lives. Independents make up 25% of registered voters, Republicans 20%.

In the neighboring San Francisco district of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the difference is even greater: fewer than 10% of voters are registered as Republicans, while more than 29% decline to state a party.

Barajas played down any damage that the decision to exclude independents might cause to the eventual Republican nominee. Whoever the GOP selects, he said, will have months to court California's unaffiliated voters.

"It will give our presidential nominee time to communicate their vision to all the independent voters," he said. "They are all going to be up for grabs."

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