Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Red Dawn or Red Yawn?--Part One

The July 12th edition of the Willamette Week featured what was surely intended to be a jolt of a cover to the complacent, dare I say optimistic leftists of the Beaver State: RED DAWN. The evocation of the communist invasion movie of the same name (Wolverines!!!) sets an ironic tone, given who's purportedly doing the invading here--Republicans. In writer Nigel Jaquiss' analysis, a longstanding Democratic registration edge has eroded to the point where status as the minority Oregon party is all but assured.

Disclaimer time: perhaps I need to have my head examined for deciding to dig deeper into a Jaquiss story. The man could medal-whip me with his Pulitzer, and if anyone besides my wife and mom stood up for me I'd die from shock rather than the wound. Furthermore, it's no real secret that Loaded O has a strong working relationship with the folks at Our Oregon, where the primary source for Jaquiss' article, Kevin Looper, plies his trade. I don't generally have any reason to doubt Looper's contributions to the article, except to wonder a bit if it was designed to create a little alarm among the faithful on the eve of midterm elections.

Nevertheless, as I read WWeek's doomsday scenario for Oregon Democrats, it didn't click for me. Maybe I'm a pollyanna, but damned if I'll be an uninformed one--and since statistical analysis and demographics are my bag, I had to find out for myself if the warnings were worth heeding (and regardless of this piece, if Democrats fail to turn out in sufficient numbers this November, they probably deserve minority status).

The first rule when evaluating a claim like "Democrat registrations are way down," is to ask the question, "Since when?" Jaquiss selects 1976, the modern zenith for Democrats in Oregon, when almost 300,000 more Ds than Rs existed. Fast forward to the May primary this year, and there are actually 32,000 fewer Democrats registered now--despite over 1.3 million more people living here since then. By contrast, over 200,000 more Oregonians call themselves Republican than in 1976. That's a pretty big disparity, no doubt.

But it's also an entirely contextless figuring. The election year of 1976 was the nadir of Republican politics--the worst time to call yourself GOP since the days of Wendell Wilkie. It was the year that the power structure ascending since 1964 finally crumbled under its own weight, and voters took a shine to an obscure peanut farmer who became governor of Georgia and promised a return to integrity.

Where is the country thirty years later? Despite rumblings of a changing of the 2006 political guard, the US stands at its most Republican in many, many years. All three federal electoral elements are controlled by the GOP, the judiciary hasn't been this conservative since before Earl Warren, and much of the tenor of political discussion takes place on Republican turf of 'values' and a central government suited for little beyond militaristic endeavors.

Given that fundamental shift, the idea that Democrats would look their weakest, and Republicans the strongest since THEIR rock bottom, seems so self-evident as to not even require the numbers themselves. Furthermore, it portrays registration patterns as a single, linear phenomenon as opposed to the reality of cyclic variation. In fact, the touchstone figure of 790,000 Democrats has cropped up several times since 1976: in 1984 (792,208); 1992 (792,551); 1988 (791,970); and even as recently as January of this year (793,069).

Yes, by contrast the GOP registration rate has not followed the same herky-jerky pattern; excepting normal dropoffs from a presidential election year to a midterm, Republican registrations have pretty consistently trended upward. But it's clear that history has had its effect on those numbers as well. From the low water mark of 1976, Oregon's GOP showed a burst in Reagan's Republican breakthrough of 1980, and took another big step in 1984.

By 1988 however, GOP fatigue may have set in, as the party lost 4,000 registrants. It bounced back in Clinton's 1992 election year, but Democrats still gained 30,000 more voters (and non-affiliated voters exploded, doubling in the two years since 1990.) Then came the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, and by 1996 72,000 additional Republicans had signed up, as over 200,000 new Oregonians streamed across the border seeking a Silicon Forest payoff--compared to only about 13,000 new Democrats during the same period.

Rather than 1976, from my analysis of registration cycles it's the last 10 years that most aptly describe current trends: Republican registration falling off somewhat, Democratic registration falling harder, and independents showing another boom not seen since 1992. Both major parties saw their totals scaled back in the midterm year of 2002--Republicans with their worst total since 1994; Democrats their worst since 1992. Jaquiss does mention the spike in 2004, but doesn't note that Democrats signed up 100,000 new voters while Republicans added 80,000--and independents 77,000. And by the 2006 primaries, all three groups had fallen again: independents and Republicans off 50,000, Democrats down 68,000.

In the WWeek story, taking the 30-year view misses cyclic undulations that match national political events, and makes it seem as if Democrats are heading south and the GOP are making a steady march to majorityhood, by using as an endpoint midterm data that don't actually show ANYONE gaining registrations. And this line really bugs me, both for what it says and what it leaves out:
The current gap between the two parties is even smaller than it appears, because in every Oregon general election since 1964, the GOP has turned out a higher percentage of its voters than have the Democrats.
That's true as far as it goes, but what's the impact of that turnout differential if the results generally have been victories for Democrats? It's like saying the Yankees are in trouble because they're winning their games 4-3 instead of 6-2--and also, their fielding percentage is the lowest in the league. Secondly, if you're going to make the argument that lack of turnout is hurting the Democrats, it's awfully convenient to leave out the fact that both the 2004 general and 2006 primary featured a differential of 1% relative to Republican turnout--parity achieved in a general election by Democrats only two other times, in 1992 and 1964.

Jaquiss does mention that the registration pace of both parties is being topped by unaffiliated voters, but calls them an "unpredictable cadre." How they vote between candidates and issues may be hard to pinpoint, but where they live and the party they appear to share power with is actually fairly striking. Sorting the 2006 primary registrations by the percentage of independent voters, it quickly becomes apparent that the counties with the most Democrats also tend to have the most unaffiliated voters.

It's not a perfect correlation--GOP leaning counties like Morrow, Polk and Deschutes also have relatively high numbers of unaffiliateds--but six out of the top 10 independent counties are plurally Democratic, and purplish Washington County is the #3 home of nonaffiliated voters (NAVs). By contrast, all 10 of the least independent counties are Republican counties, including six (Grant, Klamath, Malheur, Harney, Wallowa, Lake) where the GOP has an outright registration majority. And when Oregon voted for President in 2004, seven of the eight counties that went for Kerry are at the top of the independent list, including each of the top six.

What does it mean for independents and Democrats to track so closely together, both in registration and candidate voting patterns? Generally speaking, it reinforces the concept that Oregon's independents are largely disaffected Democrats, and suggests that declining trends in Democratic dominance may be--as with overall patterns--a reflection of cyclical national political moods, leaving independents ultimately persuadable back to the fold once the pendulum takes its inevitable swing to the left. Even if they're not going to return to being Democrats, however, it seems clear they're not going to become Republicans--or if they are, they already have.

In Part Two of our analysis, we'll address claims that demographic realities suggest a worsening trend for Democrats, and go deeper into the numbers to see whether the shifting registration patterns portend any shakeup of local politics--an important consideration for discussing Oregon's "redness" that WWeek virtually ignores...