Deschutes County’s changing voter demographics

Democrats gain ground on Republicans, as the number of non-affiliated voters booms

By Elon Glucklich / The Bulletin / @EGlucklich

Published May 2, 2014 at 12:01AM

Not too long ago, Deschutes County Republicans enjoyed a nearly 10,000-voter edge over Democrats.

Republicans running for county commissioner trounced their opponents by 2-to-1 margins from the early 1990s through 2008.

But voter registration data show the gap between Democrats and Republicans has narrowed by about half. Bend’s population boom has brought people from all over the country to Deschutes County, while more voters have shed either major party label.

And the 2008 presidential election, while far in the rearview mirror, may still be affecting registration numbers, local party leaders say, as the Republican party continues its search for a standout rallier in the mold of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Deschutes County tallied 36,295 Republicans and 30,876 Democrats as of Wednesday, new data from the county clerk’s office show. Democrats have narrowed the gap to 5,419.

Back in April 2006, by contrast, 35,113 voters were registered Republicans and 26,494 were Democrats — an 8,619 voter edge.

Based on those numbers, Democrats boosted their voter rolls by 16.5 percent over the last eight years, while Republican figures have increased 3.4 percent.

“Democrats tend to cluster in more urban areas,” Deschutes County Democratic Party Chairwoman Laurie Gould said. “You can kind of see a sample of that in (Deschutes) County, where you have all these people coming to Bend.”

Voter registration numbers are highly fluid. The numbers peak in presidential election years and can dip significantly in nonelection years, as people move in and out of areas and often don’t update their registration until just before an election.

But the county numbers show a subtle shift toward Democrats, seemingly increasing along with Bend’s population.

Republicans still have an edge of more than 5,000 voters, to be sure. A majority of Deschutes County residents probably still lean toward conservative ideas, John Philo, chairman of the Deschutes County Republican Party, said.

But he acknowledged the local demographics have changed somewhat.

“The area really draws bigger, more diverse populations” than it did when he moved to Bend in 1988. “It’s drawn people from all over the country … That might skew things a little bit when people are coming from so many diverse areas.”

But the most surprising trend may be a ballooning number of voters who choose not to register as Democrats or Republicans.

In April, 31,592 voters weren’t affiliated with any party, or registered with smaller parties such as the Libertarian Party, Pacific Green Party or others. A vast majority were unaffiliated.

April’s number is up from 21,499 in April 2006, a 47 percent increase. More voters are registered with small parties or unaffiliated than registered as Democrats.

“That’s part of a larger national trend, the decline of party loyalty,” James Foster, an Oregon State University-Cascades Campus political science professor who previously chaired the political science department at OSU’s Corvallis campus.

Bringing those unaffiliated voters to either side of the party aisle could decide future county and state-level elections for years to come, Philo and Gould both acknowledged. Each party has been hard at work trying to reach those voters.

“We really don’t know who they are without that political affiliation,” Gould said. “I think they trend conservative. When you look at election results that seems to be the case.”

Breaking the registration numbers down to percentages seems to back that up.

In April 2006, for instance, 42.3 percent of Deschutes County registered voters were Republicans, 31.9 percent were Democrats and 25.8 percent were registered with other parties or unaffiliated.

This April, 36.7 percent of registered voters were Republicans, 31.3 percent were Democrats and 32 percent were other or unaffiliated. So the number of minor party or unaffiliated voters rose about 6 percentage points, while the Republican tally dropped nearly 6 percentage points and Democrats fell by less than 1 percentage point.

“I think on both camps, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you have to look at those numbers and really have to consider what your party is about and how you attract these (unaffiliated) voters,” Philo said. “Those folks are either bothered by Republicans or bothered by Democrats, so I think there’s a lot of soul-searching we all have to do when we look at it.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7820, eglucklich@bendbulletin.com