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Power goes to those who decline to state

THE WEEK

Voters who do not register with a political party have increasing sway on election day.

April 04, 2010|By Cathleen Decker

They are the most sought-after voters in California, the weather vanes who tell the rest of the state which way the wind is blowing. Technically they are "decline to state" voters, because when they registered, they refused to side with any specific political party. They could just as easily be labeled "the deciders."

A new Los Angeles Times/USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences poll demonstrated why both parties, but more often Republicans, have had a hard time ingratiating themselves with the nonpartisans despite their myriad efforts.

Nonpartisan voters account for 20% of the electorate in California, and they are the fastest-growing segment. Their numbers began burgeoning as a consequence of deep economic changes in the state. In the early 1990s, the traditional defense, finance and manufacturing industries that had powered the California economy and defined its politics began giving ground to information and entertainment companies. Their workers were more centrist, better educated, more diverse -- and utterly uninterested in politics as it had been practiced by their parents' generation.

Because neither of the two major political parties holds a majority of voters -- even on the rare occasion when their quarrelsome members are united -- the nonpartisans hold outsize strength. Their prominence explains why most of the state's successful statewide politicians win by driving down the center of the road. They may drift to the left once in while, or to the right sometimes, but most often they straddle the yellow line.

Politically, according to the Times/USC poll, the nonpartisans occupy the ideological ground you'd expect, midway between the Democratic and Republican folds. They tend to be fiscally conservative and socially moderate.

Demographically, they look like the future of California, meaning that their sway should only increase. They are more white than the Democratic Party and more Latino than the Republican Party. They are more Asian than either party and between the two when it comes to African Americans.

Fully 55% are college graduates, compared with fewer than half of Democrats or Republicans. A quarter of them are aged 18 to 29, the same as Democrats and Republicans combined. Six in 10 are under age 50, compared with less than half among Democrats and even fewer among Republicans.

As much as on those characteristics, however, their distance from the parties rests also on cultural measures.

Much of the Democratic Party's success has been based on its alliance with organized labor. But the nonpartisans, working in newer industries, are far less apt to be union members than Democrats.

Much of the Republican Party's heft has come from its alliance with churches. But the nonpartisans appear to disdain organized religion as much as they do organized political parties.

Thirty-six percent said they never attended services, compared with 22% for Republicans. More than one in five said they did not have a religion, four times the number of Republicans.

Some of that may change as they age, but their general loosened-from-the-moorings approach to politics explains why they have sided with different parties when it comes to the two biggest races in California this year.

In the race for senator, they were with Democrat Barbara Boxer, a political figure whom many of them grew up with and who shares their social profile.

In the race for governor, they were inclined toward Republican Meg Whitman, whose ads -- which do not mention her party and are big on efficiency and shaking up the status quo -- appeal to their secular political views. The Democrat in the race, Jerry Brown, will turn 72 this week and left office before many of the nonpartisans were either born or living here. Thirty-nine percent couldn't identify him, far more than Democrats or Republicans.

Stylistically, the decline-to-state voters tend to be attracted to those who bolt from orthodoxy, much as they have. And they can be fickle.

Hence, they embraced Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who campaigned to her party's right on crime issues, and, for a while at least, Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat who did much the same. And they really loved -- until they didn't -- Arnold Schwarzenegger, the muscled embodiment of thumbing your nose at politics as usual and, before him, another Republican, Gov. Pete Wilson, who was once hanged in effigy at his party's convention.

"The technicalities of party registration aside, you could make the case that all four were elected as 'decline to state' candidates," said Dan Schnur, director of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.

Political parties will always try to register more voters, because that goes further to ensuring their vote. But, as Schnur argued and the poll buttressed, for a growing segment of the voting public, joining one or the other of the major political parties makes no sense.

"Our generation grew up with three TV networks and five buttons on the car radio," he said. "But these newest voters have never known a world without hundreds of cable stations and an infinite number of Internet sites. For someone who can watch 12 HBOs and six ESPNs, being limited to a binary choice in politics is completely unreasonable."

cathleen.decker

@latimes.com.

Each Sunday, The Week examines implications of major stories. It is archived at latimes.com/theweek.

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