Dan Walters: California Democrats hope for surge of young voters

dwalters@sacbee.comNovember 2, 2012 

There definitely has been a big surge in California voter registration in recent days – largely young and Democratic – fueled by the party's pre-election drives and a new online registration system.

The secretary of state's office will report final pre-election numbers today, but it already appears that registration could easily top 18 million potential voters, up sharply from 17.3 million in the 2008 presidential election and the 17.2 million counted in early September.

The question that political oddsmakers are asking is whether the registration surge will translate into a relatively high voter turnout, something like the 79.4 percent recorded in 2008.

A high turnout like that would help Democrats win several close congressional and legislative races and Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown to win on Proposition 30, his hotly contested sales and income tax increase.

The state's three major polls have pegged Proposition 30's support at under 50 percent in the last couple of weeks, down markedly from surveys earlier in the fall. But they also indicate that Proposition 30's biggest supporters are young voters, a subcategory that usually has a low propensity for actually casting ballots.

Therefore, Proposition 30's supporters are hoping that the surge of new young registrants will translate into a surge of new young voters who will overcome the gap between what the polls say and what they need to win – 50 percent plus one.

They take heart from the Field Poll released Thursday, which not only confirmed the measure's popularity among under-30 voters (61 percent) but found a higher level of support generally during the latter stage of its survey.

That, they hope, indicates that Field, which could not test sentiment among the newest batch of registrants, may have undercounted young, pro-Proposition 30 voters.

Scott Lay, a California community college lobbyist and political blogger, contended in a Twitter post Thursday, following release of the Field Poll, that "if voter turnout like '96, Prop. 30 fails w/ 48.7% yes; like 2004 = passes w/51.4%, like 2008 = passes w/ 50.9%."

California voter turnout in the 1996 presidential election, when Bill Clinton was coasting to a second presidential term, was just 65.5 percent. It rose to 79.4 percent in 2008, when Barack Obama was winning California handily.

There's no presidential contest in California this year. Obama is a surefire winner, as is U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, so the natural drivers of voter turnout are missing, and it's unlikely to hit the 2008 mark.

But it will almost certainly be higher than 1996 – and how much higher will be the major factor in making Proposition 30 a loser or a come-from-behind winner.

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