The election results were in more than month ago. Except in California and a couple of other states, Republican Donald Trump drew a robust number of presidential votes, enough to put him in the White House even if it fell well short of a plurality.
But there was nothing robust about the performance of his party mates here in America’s largest state.
They lost seats in the state Legislature and barely held onto piddly 14 out of 53 seats in California’s congressional delegation. Unless things change soon, they promise to only get worse and worse over the next few years for the state GOP.
If past is prologue, the state’s Republican Party will soon become the third choice of Californians registered to vote – and 78 percent of those eligible to register are in fact registered – fully 19.4 million of us, according to the count delivered by Secretary of State Alex Padilla four days before November’s Election Day.
That overall number is up about 1.2 million over the last four years, despite forecasts that far fewer people would sign up to vote this time because outgoing President Obama was not on the fall ballot.
And yet the Republican number is way down. Over those same four years, the state’s GOP lost 312,000 voters even as population climbed and Trump spent much of May campaigning here, at many stops encouraging his supporters to register Republican.
This was obviously not enough. For as Republican registration nosedived to just 26 percent of registered voters, Democratic registration was up about 775,000, for a net gain of more than 1.1 million voters over their Republican rivals in just four years.
How did this happen in a time when there was no dramatic demographic change and no one group had reason to be more motivated to register as voters than any other?
One factor is the Republican brand. Starting in 1994, when the GOP and then-Gov. Pete Wilson got staunchly behind the anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187, the party label has been anathema to the vast majority of Latinos and other groups with a significant immigrant populace.
This means fewer and fewer new voters want to call themselves Republicans, even if they share some ideas and preferences with the GOP.
In registration numbers, that created a huge shift into the “no party preference” (NPP) category, now the No. 3 choice for registered voters at 24.2 percent of registrants, barely 300,000 voters behind the Republican tally.
Over four years, the NPP total is now about 25 percent above its level of four years ago, gaining more than 900,000 voters, the largest increase of any political group, or in this case, a non-group.
There’s some comfort here for Democrats, who have seen many thousands of Republican voters convert to their column or drift into NPP-land. California voters, said party spokesman Michael Soller just before Election Day, “reject Republicans’ election lies and suppression tactics…”
But more of them are choosing to switch to the NPP column than into the Democratic fold, which translates as a warning to the Democrats: Don’t get smug.
For the GOP isn’t losing voters just because of its brand. It’s hurting because it’s out of step with the majority of Californians, whose fall votes favored gun controls, legalized marijuana and higher tobacco taxes, just a few causes Republican Party officials refused to back.
If a party gets too out of step with the voters its candidates seek to represent, it is doomed.
But many Republicans, voters and officials alike, prefer to stick to their very conservative guns, refusing to bend even a little on hard-line stances they’ve long held. “We wouldn’t be offering a choice if we changed,” said one party official.
In effect, they’re borrowing a line from the 19th century Kentucky Sen. Henry Clay, who said “I’d rather be right than president” – and never became president despite three national runs.
Like Clay, the GOP will keep losing elections unless and until it bends at least a little. And if it won’t bend to fit the preferences of the clear majority of California voters, it soon may have runoff spots in even fewer races than it did this fall.
That’s the real meaning of all those complicated voter registration numbers.
Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column.