The line that George W. Bush is the best organizing tool Democrats have seen in our lifetime is usually worth a chuckle in the audiences I meet. Thanks to his deeply and broadly unpopular presidency, 2008 will be a banner year for us, and that’s as true here as it is in the rest of the country.
But having served for several years as the chairman of the San Diego County Democratic Party, I’ve seen the makings of a political realignment that is very much a product of local dynamics — and that signifies more than the pendulum swinging against a reviled incumbent.
Despite San Diego’s reputation as a bastion of conservatism, evidence to the contrary has been quietly mounting.
The city of San Diego has had a Democratic plurality of registered voters for many years. Countywide, the registration difference between the major parties is down to about 5 percent. That’s vanishingly small when you consider the 22 percent of voters who don’t affiliate with any party. (View the current numbers here.)
Last year, four of eight victorious Democratic candidates for statewide office carried San Diego County. That had never happened before. As those candidates were well aware, there are more Democratic votes here than in any other California county save Los Angeles.
A look at voting patterns over the last 30 years shows an unmistakable trend. Democratic presidential candidates have been capturing an increasing share of the electorate in San Diego:
We expect that whichever Democratic nominee emerges next year, she or he will be the first president to win San Diego County since Bill Clinton in 1992.
For all the encouraging signs, our county party faces some real challenges. Overcoming the region’s right-wing reputation is one of them. Many Democratic voters and candidates need to get over an undeserved inferiority complex before fully embracing their role in San Diego’s emerging political majority.
Along with the Republicans, we must also confront the fact that the chosen party of most new voters is “none of the above.” Though many of those voters will go our way — particularly in a year like 2008 — there’s a big difference between supporting a party’s candidate and being a member of that party. The tepid turnout record of unaffiliated voters will tell you that.
Additionally, it must be said that for many years, the Democratic Party in San Diego County did not function on the level of an organization with nearly half a million local members. That’s where our work leading up to next year is positioning us to make the most of our opportunities.
Since the last presidential election, the county party has hired three full-time staff members (it previously had none), launched a year-round Precinct Leader program, successfully raised funds from high-dollar and grassroots donors alike, and adopted a strategic plan that emphasizes long-term candidate development.
We still have a lot of work to do, but we’re looking forward to the day when this county’s political leaders, and public policies, reflect the progressive coalition in San Diego that is calling out to be recognized — and organized.
— JESS DURFEE