Ron Nehring

Why GOP Registration Has Dropped Below 30%, and What to Do About It

Republican Party membership has now dropped below 30% in the Golden State, marking a further decline in the party’s statewide strength and affecting the prospects of Republican victories in future years.

Understanding what is, and what isn’t, contributing to this development is important so Republican candidates, and more importantly, elected officials, can make increasingly necessary adjustments.  Misdiagnosing the problem risks sending precious resources off in the wrong direction.

First, let’s recognize that party registration follows party self-identification.  People register with the party with whom they identify.

Paid voter registration programs focused in targeted districts are designed to register people who by and large already consider themselves Republicans.  By concentrating a disproportionate effort into a tightly confined area we can, and do, move the needle.  Think of placing a hot poker into a bathtub: the water next to the poker becomes much hotter, but not the water at the other end of the tub.  Some of our victories this coming Tuesday will likely have been made possible by such concentrated registration efforts.

Yet, the state population is so large and the Republican registration deficit is so significant that merely registering people who already consider themselves Republicans is not enough.

The party registration statistics are a symptom of the real problem, which is party self-identification.  That is, not enough Californians, registered or not, identify with the Republican Party.

In America, political parties are defined nationally.  The number of minutes of television news devoted to state politics on a given day is a few grains of sand when compared to the beach of attention given to national politics and policy.

America’s political environment is constantly changing.  Within the last 50 years the Northeast and the West Coast have gone from Republican to Democrat, while the South has gone from Democrat to Republican.  This didn’t happen because the state Republican committees in the South had more people standing in front of supermarkets registering voters.  The development was a reflection of a change in how each party was identified nationally, and voters adjusted their party allegiance accordingly.

African Americans, Asians and Latinos tend to identify more closely with Democrats than with Republicans.  In a state with a sharp rise in the later two groups, a shift toward the Democrats was predictable.

Now, the big numbers will not move in our favor until many more people in the state self-identify as Republicans.

What can impact this?  First, a popular Republican president who positively defines the Republican brand and provokes a national realignment, as Reagan did.  Second, and more specifically, the Republican Party needs to be much more positively defined in the Latino and Asian communities.

To most voters, a party is defined by its candidates and elected officials, and what they say.  Due to the lopsided way our legislative and Congressional lines have been drawn, most Republican federal and state candidates in California can win without securing a majority of either the Latino or the Asian vote.  As a result, many of them don’t get good at it.

Looking at the survey data and election results, it’s clear we have been losing, not gaining, ground in the Latino community.  Each party’s approach to the issue of immigration is defining the parties within this group – it has extremely high symbolic value and goes much deeper than the issue itself.

It doesn’t matter what kind of economic policies Republicans prescribe if too many Latinos are of the erroneous belief that, well, some Republicans would prefer they not be here in the first place.

While the economy, normally a strength for us, is the dominant issue among Latinos, too often Republicans are not accepted as credible messengers in the first place because the immigration issue defines us before we can give our pitch.

Consider Meg Whitman, who campaigned on opposing Prop 187 and SB 1070, the Arizona immigration law.  Yet, despite her intense efforts to distance herself from the traditional Republican positions on these issues, she was still wiped out in the Latino community.  Gloria Allred’s stunt with Mrs. Whitman’s Latina former housekeeper would not have had the same impact if not for the liability the Republican brand has become among many Latinos.  Allred and the housekeeper were reinforcing a stereotype that already existed in their target audience.

Presidents, not Congressional leaders, define parties.  The Democrats were not well defined during the Reagan years, and the Republicans were not well defined during the Clinton years.  When voters look for signals as to what each party stands for, they look to the executive, not the legislative, branch.

Hopefully on Tuesday we will elect a new Republican President in Mitt Romney.  And hopefully President Romney will have the opportunity to advance Republican solutions in the area of immigration, such as a guest worker program (many Republicans support it, Democrats oppose it because of the opposition from labor leaders), increasing the levels of legal immigration (many Republicans support it, Democrats tend not to, again because of the unions), and simplifying much of the paperwork that drives immigrants crazy (but keeps plenty of immigration lawyers busy).

By advancing solutions that the Democrats were unwilling to adopt even when they had the Congressional majority, President Romney will boost the party’s credibility with this enormous demographic group.  Boosting the economy through rational policies and undoing the damage Mr. Obama has caused will no doubt help as well.

Statewide Republican registration in California has not declined because the state Republican Party didn’t do this or that.  The macro trends at work overpower all of it, and it will take a Republican President delivering solutions on issues that have high value to Latinos and Asians that will help to tilt the pendulum back.

In the meantime, voter registration efforts can continue to provide important benefits in shifting the dynamics in a limited number of tightly defined districts.  The statewide numbers are going to require policy actions nationally.