Over the last decade in the Coachella Valley (and Riverside County overall), there has been a seismic political shift that is not related to the proximity of the San Andreas Fault.
In 2004, as the presidential election drew near, the Republican Party in Riverside County held a voter-registration advantage of 12.5 percentage points over the Democratic Party.
Four years later, that Republican advantage had dwindled to slightly more than 5 percentage points. And in 2012, as the race between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney neared its climax, the Democratic Party had narrowed the gap to just 4.5 percentage points.
According to data released on May 20 by the California Secretary of State, that differential is now just 4.1 percentage points.
It’s no surprise that many political insiders in Riverside County attribute the Democrats’ surprising wins at the polls last November—Obama actually beat Romney by almost 11,000 votes in the county, and Dr. Raul Ruiz edged out incumbent Rep. Mary Bono Mack to get elected to Congress—to the party’s effective voter-enlistment drive over the last decade.
“When we opened our headquarters five years ago (in Cathedral City), we realized that one of the most important activities we could pursue was voter registration,” explained Elle Kurpiewski, the manager of the aforementioned headquarters and a former president of the Democrats of the Desert. “Our facility plays host to 11 different Democratic clubs and organizations in the region; we sponsor a booth at the weekly Thursday night Palm Springs Village Fest; and in 2008, we had 27 semi-permanent voter-registration sites established.”
Other factors have impacted the registered-voter landscape, too. One was the California online voter registration legislation that took effect in 2012 and is credited with enabling some 800,000 new voters statewide to join the electoral rolls prior to the 2012 general election. This new registration method proved particularly effective in attracting eligible voters among the young and minority groups, favoring Democrats statewide by a 2-to-1 margin over Republicans. (There are no specific numbers for Riverside County available yet.)
“Our only concern was whether online registration would actually work: Would voters be able to navigate the system successfully to get registered?” Kurpiewski said. “What we want is that people take advantage of their constitutional right to vote. If it works and helps stop registration fraud, then we’re in favor of it.”
Another major factor is the rapid growth of the Latino population statewide. According to the California Department of Finance, by early 2014, Latinos will outnumber white people by early 2014. Along with the Latino segment’s rapid growth comes these political realities: While only 44 percent of eligible Latino voters in the state had registered, more than 60 percent of them identified themselves as Democrats; meanwhile, only about 15 percent said they were Republicans, according to the Public Policy Institute of California in an analysis released earlier this year.
Therein lies both an opportunity and a challenge for the two major political parties.
“I always say that the Republican Party in Riverside County has three ongoing and equally important goals: voter registration, fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts,” said Randon Lane, chairman of the Republican Party of Riverside County. “I will speak to any organization, representing any constituency, about the Republican Party message and values. Right now, it’s important for us to get outside the box to attract both new voters to register as Republicans, and convert those who may not completely understand our message and are registered now with other major parties.”
Kurpiewski said local Democrats have made specific efforts to reach Latino communities in Coachella, Indio and Mecca. “But our focus is not just the Latino community; we care about everyone. In all ethnic communities, we enlist participants who are members of that community and have skills and expertise unique to their community. They know their neighbors and can identify the areas where our voter registration outreach will succeed. Our whole thing is working together with the communities that make up Coachella Valley, and that has made us successful in turning this valley blue.”
All eyes are now on the 2014 Riverside County Board of Supervisors race between challenger V. Manuel Perez, a Democrat, and Republican incumbent John Benoit. Just how much of the voter-registration focus in Riverside County will be on recruiting Latino citizens?
“There are a lot of shared voter concerns that we speak to as a party in our outreach efforts, whether at meetings, via social media or direct mail,” said Lane, “but particular voter segments have their specific issues that we want to address. The Republican Party wants to speak to the Latino community’s concerns, just as we need to address concerns in the black, Asian, white or any ethnic constituency where voters will consider supporting the Republican Party.”
Kurpiewski said local Democrats are in the process of starting a major voter-registration drive this month. “I’d rather not share details, because we don’t want to give opposing parties a preview of our strategy, but we are very confident that this effort will enable us to accomplish everything we can to help V. Manuel Perez to get elected, and also to keep U.S. Congressman Raul Ruiz in office,” she said.