Last year, San Diego County had 20,000 requests from Republicans to change their party affiliation. That’s not a sea change, since more than a half-million still remain in the GOP. Even so, almost the same number asked to switch from the Democratic Party.
But over the past decade, the county GOP’s stagnation is stunning.
The last time Republicans outnumbered Democrats in the county was April 2011 — 511,432 to 509,599. Today, the tally is Democrats (799,798) over Republicans (528,513).
At a Fashion Valley rally the day before the 1984 election, President Ronald Reagan pronounced San Diego his “good luck city.” The GOP icon wouldn’t recognize the region today.
“Demographics aren’t destiny, but they tend to win out over time,” says longtime San Diego politics observer Carl Luna of San Diego Mesa College. “Democratic gains exceeding GOP gains is a function of changing demographics.”
He says San Diego shifted from being a largely white working class/military/retiree town 30 years ago — when four of five local Congress seats and the San Diego City Council were Republican and thoughts of a Democrat on the county Board of Supervisors “was the stuff of fantasy.”
Now the region has an increasingly diverse population with a greater concentration of professional jobs and college-educated workers, Luna said via email.
- Chart: Requests among county Republicans in 2021 to change party status (PDF)
- Chart: Requests among county Democrats in 2021 to change party status (PDF)
- Chart: Requests among county NPP voters in 2021 to change status (PDF)
“The GOP is doing best in recent years with older, white, non-college educated and blue-collar workers,” he said. “The Democrats are doing best with nonwhite, younger, college educated and professional workers. The battleground between them for years has been the white suburban population, which is now breaking more towards the Democrats (though we’ll have to see if that continues in 2022 and 2024 as Biden-fatigue erodes party support.)”
Also notable: In 2021, 41,598 San Diego County voters who listed themselves as No Party Preference — NPP — asked to change. The biggest gainers were Dems — with 22,244 additional party members. Republicans gained 10,930 former NPP voters that year.
Among 19,875 requests in 2021 to switch from Republican, 5,581 became Democrats and 8,250 registered as NPP. (The American Independent Party gained 4,128 — although experts doubt they meant it.)
Among 19,807 requests in 2021 to switch from Democrat, 5,265 became Republicans and 9,513 registered as NPP, according to county data.
But George Blessing, an analyst with the county Registrar of Voters Office, advised people not to read too much into the switch figures.
“A voter sometimes waffles and changes more than once in a year,” he told Times of San Diego. “If a voter changed from REP to DEM in February, then to NPP in April, then back to DEM in August, then to GRN [Green Party] in November, they would be in the DEM to XXX twice — once as DEM to NPP and once as DEM to GRN.”
Echoing Professor Luna is Casey Dominguez, a political scientist at the University of San Diego.
She says registration flux always occurs, especially as people move and update their registration through the DMV.
“People who move a lot tend to be younger and lower income, both groups that in urban areas tend to be more Democratic,” Dominguez said via email. “I also think the story here is one similar to other highly educated, diverse, urban populations in the U.S. and around the world.”
She noted trends seen by Pew Research and the Brookings Institution, even on a global scale.
“Locally, we are probably seeing these wider trends play out,” Dominguez said. “Any local mobilization/registration efforts are probably small by comparison.”
Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, chairman of the county Democratic Party, grants that some defections are tied to primary election politics.
“It is actually not unusual for voters to change parties after a presidential election,” he said. “People often register with a party to vote in the primary and then return to NPP status (even though this is not necessary in the Democratic Party as we allow NPPs to vote in our primary).”
But Rodriguez-Kennedy calls the Republican Party’s re-registration rate “very unusual,” since it only keeps pace with the Democratic Party — with 271,285 more county voters.
“This indicates that the normal post-presidential change of registration is not enough to explain this number,” he said. “These changes and the Republican stagnation overall paints a picture of a party out of touch with San Diegans, which has failed to attract any new voters.”
Leadership of the Republican Party of San Diego County, including Chairwoman Paula Whitsell, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Neither did the state GOP.
Latino voters appear to be another driver of party change. (The 2020 census shows the county is 34% Hispanic.)
According to the county ROV, people requesting Spanish-language ballots grew from 247,000 in November 2011 to 450,000 in January 2022. But Spanish-language Dems have grown as a share of the electorate.
In 2011, Spanish-language Republicans trailed Democrats by about 2-1. Today, the GOP trails almost 3-1.
County Registrar of Voters Cynthia Paes notes that totals in their ethnic reports do not represent actual voter counts from a given community. (Some 450,838 requested Spanish election materials.)
She said the county arrives at such breakdowns via:
- Requests that voting material be provided in Spanish, Filipino, Vietnamese or Chinese.
- Voter’s birthplace matching a country designated as primarily speaking the respective language.
- And voter’s last name matching a surname list provided by the Department of Justice. “Due to overlap in surnames between the Filipino and Spanish lists,” she said, “a voter may be counted on both the Spanish and Filipino voter count report.”
Rodriguez-Kennedy, the local Democratic leader, likes what he sees in the latest decade.
“In 2012, there were 512,637 Republican voters; now there are 528,513,” he said. “That is marginal growth of 15,876 voters. … Meanwhile, the Democratic Party had 516,535 voters in 2012 and 799,798 voters today. That is a growth of 283,263 voters and has grown as a share of the electorate.
“That means the Democratic Party’s growth is 17.84 times greater than Republican growth.”
(In fact, Democrats’ share of county voters rose to a high of 41.1% in January 2022 compared with just under 40% in January 2011. Republicans fell from 27.6% in January 2011 to 27.1% in January 2022.)
Asked what accounts for the slide, Rodriguez-Kennedy said: “The Republican Party is stagnating and failing to attract new voters. This is likely due to a brand tarnished with Trumpism, the Republican Party’s embrace of extremism, and their utter lack of solutions to any issue facing our region.”
Political science professor Luna says something else is happening, saying it’s “striking” that GOP, Democratic and overall voter registration has increased faster than population growth.
He says that reflects a national trend of politicization of society — with the record number of votes being cast in 2020 as an indicator.
“Remember when we used to bemoan low voter registration and turnout?” he asked. “Now we have high registration, but it seems to be a sign of escalating polarization. The changes in party registration (GOP/Democrat defectors) is relatively small compared to the full registration, indicating to me partisan identity may be crystalizing.”
But Luna has a warning for local Dems: “Now that Democrats control San Diego city and county government, the onus is on them to actually deliver on the progressive promises they’ve made and make life better for San Diegans.”
He said Democrats now own the homeless crisis, “along with skyrocketing housing prices, continued bad roads and an economy impacted by COVID (not to mention high gas prices which no one in office here can really affect but which makes voters angry at incumbents in general).
Meanwhile in 2020, Luna added, Donald Trump scored a higher share of Latino voters.
“Biden still got 61% but Trump’s numbers were up 8% points over 2016, showing that the faster emerging non-white voting bloc in America (and San Diego) is not a lock for Democrats, which could impact the power balance in San Diego over the next decade,” he said.
Still, Luna surmised: Democrats in 2022 and 2024 will continue to enjoy a growing dominance in San Diego County politics — “barring an implosion of the Biden Administration, etc.”