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(dailynews.com) Who votes in California’s primary election Tuesday, June 5, will be as important as how many.

The makeup of the primary electorate could sway two big questions that will pay off in the November General Election: Will the GOP field a candidate for governor? Will Democrats be shut out of Orange County congressional races and, by doing that, blow their shot at taking control of the House?

California’s primary voting system advances the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, to the general election. With a glut of Democrats running in GOP-held congressional districts in Orange County, the fear among Democrats is that those candidates will split the vote and allow two Republicans to advance.

On the GOP side, the concern is that leading candidates John Cox and Travis Allen will split Republican votes and allow a Democrat, possibly former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, to finish second, setting up a Nov. 6 contest with Democrat and presumed front-runner Gavin Newsom, who is currently lieutenant governor.

So far, early indications are that turnout for the June 5 primary will exceed the numbers seen in the 2014 primary (a low bar, considering ’14 saw the smallest turnout in state history) yet fall short of the 2016 primary, which featured a spirited if largely symbolic contest between Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

As of Friday morning, about 1.84 million of the 11.59 million ballots mailed to Californians – roughly 16 percent – had been returned, according to an absentee vote-tracking website from Political Data, Inc., which provides voter information to campaigns, consultants, and pollsters.

It can be hard to draw comparisons between primaries, Paul Mitchell of Political Data wrote in a column for Capitol Weekly.

“In 2014 there was not a Democratic challenge to the incumbent governor, but there was a competitive Republican race,” Mitchell wrote. “And in 2016 this was flipped; the Republican nomination was sewn up when Donald Trump won in Indiana, but the Democratic race was still raging.”

As of Memorial Day weekend, 85,000 more primary ballots had been cast compared to 2014, Mitchell wrote. But there was a 25 percent drop compared to 2016, he added.

Despite the number of statewide offices with open seats, “we haven’t seen any of the candidates emerging as truly inspiring or wildly controversial,” said Marcia Godwin, a professor of public administration at the University of La Verne.

“The lack of major party endorsements for governors means that party money is either being left on the table for fall, or going to the congressional races.

She added: “In general, a lower turnout means that the gap between Democrats and Republicans narrows.  Los Angeles County usually has very low turnout in midterm elections, which would most likely hurt Villaraigosa more than other candidates.  However, his campaign is really well funded.”

Regarding the competitive Orange County congressional seats, “Higher turnout in Orange County will help Democrats to advance while lower turnout gives Republicans more leeway.  The number of candidates in the races is still the key factor.”

The turnout question involves two “conflicting bits” of conventional wisdom, said Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College.

“On the one hand, Republican voters are older, and older people have higher turnout in primaries. On the other hand, Democrats seem highly motivated this year.”

Special elections since Trump took office have largely gone well for Democrats, who have been competitive in traditionally Republican districts and won seats in districts that voted for the president.

But the Democratic margin in polls with generic congressional ballots – they ask respondents which party they’d vote – has shrunk in recent weeks, with Democrats holding an edge of about 6 points — suggesting the GOP might retain control of Congress in November despite historic trends in which the party out of the White House gains seats in mid-term elections.

Old people decide?

While it’s too early to make sweeping predictions “and I’d expect things to narrow … the voting electorate appears to be older, whiter and more Republican than the registered electorate as a whole,” Rob Pyers of the California Target Book, which studies the state’s legislative races, said last Tuesday.

“Looking at the composition of the ballot returns from some of the districts with high percentages of Latino voters, the surge that was expected with Villaraigosa and (Democratic U.S. Senate candidate) Kevin de León running for statewide office so far does not appear to have materialized.”

Anita Ford, 70, left, and Phyllis Steele, 73, talk with Orange resident Jo-Ann Coller while they were out canvassing for a congressional candidate on Thursday, May 10, 2018. The pair had 18 houses to visit on this day. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Eighteen to 34-year-old voters make up about a fourth of voters who receive mail-in ballots, but they accounted for just 10 percent of the returns, while senior voters made up half of returned ballots, Mitchell wrote for Capitol Weekly on May 29.

“This is set to be an old primary, with the median age around 59,” he wrote. “Millennials may be the largest part of the voter file, but with a turnout boost we can expect the Baby Boomers to decide most of these races.”

But Mitchell cautioned against reading too much into early returns. In Texas’ March primary, early-vote ballots suggested a Democratic wave, but Republicans ended up with a 20-point advantage, he wrote.

Democrats made up 44.6 percent of California’s registered voters as of April 6, Secretary of State figures show. And no party preference voters recently surpassed Republicans to become the state’s second-largest voting bloc, according to Mitchell’s firm.

But Republicans still hold a small plurality of voters in the Orange County congressional districts targeted by the Democratic Party. To boost the party’s chances of fielding a November candidate in those districts, Democrats and their supporters engaged in a complicated strategy of endorsing some of their candidates while attacking GOP candidates and, in some cases, even boosting other GOP candidates.

The Trump factor

A key question is whether Trump, a polarizing figure who’s largely unpopular in California, will be a bigger motivator to vote for his supporters or critics, said Dan Schnur, a former GOP consultant who teaches at UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California.

“If Trump is able to motivate his conservative base to turn out – if he’s successful in using issues like sanctuary cities to turn out his base – that’s going to be tremendous to Republican congressional candidates,” he said. “If those issues end up motivating his opposition, Democrats are going to do much better.”

Trump recently endorsed Cox in a bid to consolidate GOP support around the San Diego-area businessman. The latest UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll showed Cox pulling away from Villaraigosa, Allen and other candidates for second place behind Newsom.

Another question, Schnur said, is whether Trump motivates Latino voters to turn out for this primary. Traditionally, Latino turnout for non-presidential elections is lower than in presidential elections.

Regional differences in turnout could be a factor in the gubernatorial race, Pitney said.

“Heavy Bay Area turnout will help Newsom,” a former San Francisco mayor, Pitney said. “Heavy turnout in Hispanic areas will help Villaraigosa.”

“On the GOP side, Cox does not have a regional base, since he spent most of his life outside California. Orange County might favor a local candidate like Allen (an assemblyman from Huntington Beach), but that is not a sure thing.”

Voting questions

Here’s where to go if you have questions about your voter registration status, polling place or similar queries ahead of California’s June 5 primary election.

California Secretary of State: website, www.sos.ca.gov; voter hotline: 800-345-VOTE

Los Angeles County: registrar-recorder/county clerk’s website, www.lavote.net; phone number: 800-815-2666.

Orange County: registrar of voters website, www.ocvote.com; phone number: 714-567-7600.

Riverside County: registrar of voters website, www.voteinfo.net; phone number: 951-486-7200.

San Bernardino County: elections office website, www.sbcountyelections.com; phone number: 800-881-VOTE.