Viewpoint by Thomas Elias: Parties don't get it, lose touch with voters

January 22, 2002

That strange sound you might have heard lately emanates from the top officials of both major political parties in California as they try to explain away the voters deserting them en masse. It's the sound of whistling past the graveyard.

A growing mass of voters here is plainly disenchanted with both Republicans and Democrats. Evidence litters the political landscape.

It's most obvious in the latest voter registration figures. Yes, Democrats take comfort from the fact they now outnumber Republicans by more than 11 percent, 45.6 percent to 34.8 percent of registered voters.

But how comfortable can they be when they see that 14.4 percent of the voting public now refuses to pick either party, essentially saying they can't stand either one.

The parties steadily deny the numbers mean much. Says Bob Mulholland, chief consultant to the Democrats, "Election results, that's where the real loyalty is to Democrats in California. The Democrats won big in California in 1996, 1998 and 2000. The voters left the Republican altar five years ago and haven't been seen since."


And Republican Secretary of State Bill Jones, a candidate for governor and the lone GOP statewide officeholder, explains away mass defections by saying, "Voters have consistently shown a propensity to base their decisions on individuals rather than political parties."

They always did. But they also used to register with one party or another.

Bet on this: If either party were adding significantly to its percentage of the voters here, their leaders would be talking differently.

The registration numbers show plainly that the mass of middle-ground voters in recent years has not so much embraced Democrats as it has rejected Republicans. A choice of the lesser of two evils.

You can see some of this phenomenon in the way many Californians feel about this year's energy mess: The Republicans started it, they believe, but the Democrats haven't done much of a job dealing with it.

That's one way to sum up poll results showing voters supporting most incumbents, but dissatisfied with Gov. Gray Davis, yet still unable to find a Republican they like much better. After six months of steadily bashing Davis, who has not responded, the poll-leading GOP candidate Richard Riordan still only tops Davis by no more than four points in any survey.

But the reality of voters not liking either party or its leadership is not unique to energy, or to this year's race for governor — which actually began the moment the last election ended.

The majority of Californians for years have felt both major parties were too extreme. That's why they voted in 1996 for open primary elections in which anyone could vote for whoever they liked, regardless of party affiliation. That system, many thought, would help moderates in both parties.

But again the parties failed them. Working in tandem, the Republican and Democratic state organizations challenged the open, or blanket, primary in a lawsuit and the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled their way, essentially saying that political parties are a bit like private clubs where only members should have the right to vote for the leadership.

That's why, in the statewide primary next March, voters will see lists only of candidates from their own party. Those who decline to state a party will be able to choose one or the other ballot when they go to the polls, but even they won't see all the candidates listed in one place, as they did in the 1998 and 2000 primaries.

The open voting then produced several victories for moderates who would likely have lost if balloting had been limited to members of their own parties. It was precisely what the party honchos wanted to prevent.

But it was exactly what the mass of voters likes. By defying the will of the voters, both parties separated themselves from the political mainstream. How can they be surprised that this led more and more voters to refuse to identify with either of them?

In fact, the number of moderate, independent voters has now grown so large it suggests a need for a third, more centrist party to take on the extremists of right and left. All that's needed to create such a party is someone with a big bankroll. The popular sentiment is already there, waiting to be activated.

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