A Trump supporter stands on Mission Boulevard in Pacific Beach as police cars are lined up on surrounding streets.
A Trump supporter stands on Mission Boulevard in Pacific Beach at Jan. 9 protest — three days after U.S. Capitol violence that some say led registered Republicans to resign from the party. Photo by Chris Stone

More than 4,700 San Diego County Republicans fled the party in January, with almost a quarter switching to Democrat and two-thirds registering as American Independent Party or picking none, county records show.

The question is why.

Many on the left attribute GOP defections to revulsion over the Capitol riots of Jan. 6. But #LeftTheGOP has trended for years in the Trump presidency, including politicians locally.

Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, recently re-elected as county Democratic Party chairman, says the reduced numbers are simple: “The chickens are coming home to roost for the Republican Party. After years of bending the knee to a traitorous, anti-science, anti-journalist, anti-truth, xenophobic tyrant, we are seeing an exodus in the Republican Party.”

Chart provided by San Diego County Registrar of Voters Office shows how many Republicans switched parties in January 2021. (See party abbreviations )

Paula Whitsell, newly elected chair of the Republican Party of San Diego County, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

But San Diego political veteran Tom Shepard, once a consultant to Republican candidates, said that without surveying the GOP-quitting voters, it’s impossible to definitively pinpoint reasons for resignations.

Yet based on surveys performed elsewhere, he said, “it appears many of these voters were motivated by the post-election activities of Trump and his supporters.”

He noted that a “consistent and sustained decline” in GOP-identifying voters locally and statewide preceded the Trump presidency.

“The problem facing the [Republican] Party … is a deep split between many traditional Republicans and newly engaged populists, nativists and white supremacists,” Shepard said via email. “Until that split is resolved, it’s hard to see a path to reducing defections.”

Times of San Diego columnist Rick Griffin, who does public relations for conservatives, said: “The best political advertising consultants tell me that shifts in party affiliation are not an accurate indicators of candidate selection. That’s why TV commercials focus on the candidate, not their political party.”

He said voters registered with one party routinely vote for a candidate from another party, “but it doesn’t mean those voters have switched their party affiliation. That’s why California can expect millions of Democrats will vote to recall [Gov. Gavin] Newsom later this year.”

How big is 4,741 — the number of county GOP dropouts in January?

“It’s a significant number for one post-election month,” Shepard says. “It’s also significant that less than one-quarter of the ‘switchers’ chose to affiliate with the Democratic Party. Nearly three-quarters chose either NPP or AIP – reflective of a larger trend toward away from party affiliation.”

But progressive blogger Doug Porter said the rise in American Independent voters is “mostly due to ignorance” — thinking such a category as Independents exists.

Porter, the former San Diego Free Press editor, looked at recent December-to-January changes in biennial election cycles.

With the exception of January 2017 — when Donald Trump took office and the GOP grew by 148 voters countywide — the trend was a Republican decline locally — down an average of 2,610 in the first month of 2013, 2015 and 2019.

So the falloff in GOP voter registration in January 2021 is greater than normal, he said. (Net registration declines aren’t the same as party defections, however.)

In terms of county voters, the GOP went from 27.59% to 27.44% by the end of January. (Democrats rose from 39.99% of registered voters to 40.14%.)

More than 30,000 Republicans nationwide dropped out of the GOP in the weeks after pro-Trump supporters attacked the Capitol, The Hill reported last week. Some 6,145 Oregonians switched their registration in January, said KGW-TV, adding: “It’s the largest drop in decades but is still less than 1% of the party.”

On Sunday, Cal Matters reported that more than 33,000 California Republicans have changed party status since Jan. 6 — a relative few compared to the 5 million members of the state GOP.

Cynthia Paes, the acting registrar after Michael Vu took another county job, provided a chart showing 1,172 Republicans in the GOP-heavy 50th Congressional District switching parties or declining to state a party. (Only 240 became Democrats in that East and inland North County district.)

Shepard, once labeled “the most successful political consultant in San Diego history,” helped at least four San Diego mayors get elected: Roger Hedgecock, Susan Golding, Jerry Sanders and Bob Filner.

He said the Republican Party in San Diego is no longer competitive in most urban and suburban communities.

“The same is true statewide,” he said. “It still functions as a money-laundering tool in targeted jurisdictions, and the party endorsement still has some value in Republican-leaning jurisdictions, but as a factor in governing it has become irrelevant.”

Mesa College professor Carl Luna, the longtime local political observer, says the local GOP defection number is remarkable — for not being larger.

“It is significantly lower than one might have anticipated given just how radical major parts of the party have become (look at QAnon adherent, assassination supporter and Congresswomen Marjorie Taylor Greene being given plum committee assignments by the GOP while Cindy McCain is censored by her party),” he said.

Defections by less than 1% of the county’s 544,529 Republicans is “almost a rounding error,” he said.

“The number signifies that the large majority of Republicans here and around the country have either decided a) they can live with the radicals in their party because they think the Democrats are worse; or b) they are the radicals in their party,” Luna said via email. “At some point, when the large majority of your party either tacitly accepts their radicals or actively embraces them, then the radicals ARE the party and you have to own what they do.”

Democratic Party chair Rodriguez-Kennedy, a member of the Democratic National Committee, says people generally stick with their party through victory and defeat.

“However, partisan registration is often a statement of principle, and 4,741 Republicans have determined that their former party no longer represents their values,” he said.

Anything notable about the geographical locations of the changes?

Rodriguez-Kennedy noticed that the larger numbers come from areas with smaller populations of Democratic voters (though his party hold pluralities in four of the five county congressional districts).

“This marks a trend that our party has been working to advance — gaining ground in the North and East by leading with our values and committing to community engagement and a vibrant outreach to Democrats who have Republicans in their households and Independents,” he said.

Times of San Diego sent the Paes chart to Barry Jantz, the former La Mesa councilman and contributor to San Diego Rostra, the conservative blog.

He said: “Looking at only one month of such data, and for only one party, instead of across several months and in other post-presidential elections, provides no ability to make any kind of comparative assessment whatsoever.”

But he added, jokingly: “It wasn’t the Dominion software that flipped the registrations.”

Another La Mesan, Councilman Bill Baber, is an attorney and longtime treasurer to many Republican campaigns. But he quit the party.

“I was an OG Never-Trumper,” he said Wednesday. “He wasn’t going to change, so I left. I re-registered last summer.  I was appalled at what I saw on January 6th and that reinforced my decision.  My current registration is with the Common Sense Party, which better reflects my values. I work with Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Anyone who wants to improve La Mesa is my friend.”

Luna says the switch map is “nothing unexpected.”

“There were more GOP defections from Democratic leaning districts than the solid [Democratic] 51st and more shifting from GOP to independent rather than Democrat,” he said. “It’s the Nathan Fletcher effect — first you leave the GOP to become an independent and then, maybe, you become a Democrat.”

He added: “The figures show that any thought Democrats and political strategists may have given to the GOP pulling back to the center post-Trump are misplaced, at least in the near term. If the GOP pays a political price for its radicalization … in 2022 then maybe there’s a chance for the more moderate wing of the party (the Romneys, Collins, etc.) to isolate the radicals and move to the center.”

But if the GOP scores big in 2022 with its new coalition of the far right and the “far far right,” taking back the House, Senate and doing well at the state and local levels, he said, “then this incarnation of the GOP will be the GOP for the balance of the decade or more.”

“In that case, we have become a de-facto parliamentary society where there are such ideological cleavages between the two major parties the only way for either to govern and get anything done is by brute majority force,” Luna said. “Compromise and consensus (which our system is supposed to be based on) is on the bus heading out of town.”

Updated at 10:24 a.m. Feb. 8, 2021