As an elections analyst, one of my personal axioms I like to share is that, every election cycle, we learn something new about voters, and their relationship with the voting process.
That was certainly true in North County for this presidential general election.
The final ballot count isn’t in yet, but in the 49th Congressional District, Democratic challenger Doug Applegate handily beat Congressman Darrell Issa in the North County portion of the District, 53 percent to 47 percent.
Still, Issa is in a good position to win, albeit by a razor-thin margin, from a significant Republican voter registration advantage in south Orange County.
In my city of Carlsbad, Democratic challenger Cori Schumacher is in a strong position to win a spot on the City Council race against Republican incumbent Lorraine Wood, who won in 2012.
Only a few dozen votes separate the two as of the writing of this column, and late absentee voters and polling location voters historically skew more Democratic and progressive.
Both Schumacher and Applegate were outspent by the incumbents, and both were first-time candidates, and yet both beat Republican incumbents in conservative-leaning North County. Some have pointed to Measure A, Donald Trump, and democratic turnout as key factors into making these re-election races toss-ups. I would point more to “voter churn” and community engagement as reasons why the incumbents lost on Election Day.
While North County may have a reputation as an older, quieter, slower-paced community, the electorate has changed significantly since the last presidential election.
Forty-one percent of Carlsbad voters only registered in the last four years — in the 49th Congressional District, 43 percent have registered since 2012.
These new voters lean more Democratic and Independent than the voters that registered before them.
Most don’t know who their elected representatives are, nor have a relationship with them or allegiance to them.
In some respects, it’s an entirely new audience that candidates and elected officials face every election cycle. This requires a commitment to routine, aggressive high-level community engagement, every day, every week, and especially outside an election year. From speaking with voters, I’ve learned Issa and Wood have done some community outreach in the past, but not on an aggressive or routine basis.
Elected officials have to be accessible, highly visible and approachable throughout the community. They have to constantly reintroduce themselves to voters. They need to get out of their comfort zones and speak to non-friendly audiences. They need track records and credibility on issues that members of both parties care about. This burden is particularly on Republican incumbents, as the electorate shifts more Democratic over time. In the City of San Diego, Mayor Kevin Faulconer and City Councilmember Lorie Zapf are great examples of incumbents who practice routine, high levels of community engagement.
Incumbency shouldn’t be viewed as an advantage anymore, nor should superior fundraising totals or partisan registration edges. Elected officials in North County, like those in the city of San Diego, need to give all voters a reason for their support on Election Day, before Election Day. If incumbents have done little before an election to change the dynamics, and leave most voters to view their race as between a “generic Republican” and “generic Democrat,” the Democratic candidate will win most of those races. Even in North County.
Vince Vasquez is an elections analyst and economist based in Torrey Pines. He is a Carlsbad resident.