There’s an election in California, but will the Democratic voters show up?

By: Linda Goldston/ Mercury News

Tarah Al-Haise was into “the whole presidential thing” when Barack Obama was elected president two years ago. Yet with next month’s elections looming, nothing on the ballot inspires the junior psychology major at San Jose State University to persuade her to vote. She knows plenty of students who feel the same way.

Everyone but her friend Maria Makarian, 21, who not only will enthusiastically cast her ballot, but worries that she may be in the minority.

“It’s frustrating,” the senior social work major said. “Just this past weekend at a Rock the Vote event, people came out between sets to encourage us to vote and they were booed.”

Anything can happen this election, but the youthful tidal wave that helped sweep Obama into the White House in 2008 may have dried up. With Barbara Boxer holding a slight lead over former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, there’s a chance California may not get socked by anti-incumbent fever as badly as other states, but there’s no question — many Democrats are struggling to find a reason to vote.

“What I’m noticing is that we don’t have a candidate on the top of the ticket that’s generating a lot of excitement in the electorate,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California. “And we don’t have a ballot measure attracting the excitement Proposition 8 did last time around, so turnout will be significantly less that we had in the presidential election.”

Traditionally, voter turnout is low for midterm elections when there is no presidential candidate or compelling issue on the ballot, and the state appears headed that way this time.

“A lot of people say, ‘My vote doesn’t count’ ” said Hermila Salazar, 44, of Watsonville, who will vote with her husband, Paul. “Obama is trying very hard to get things done, but some Latinos are turning against him. They ask, ‘Where’s the federal immigration law?’ ” But he has to fix the economy first.”

Nearly 14 percent more Democrats than Republicans are registered to vote in the state, which should give them the edge, but GOP leaders said they’re seeing an excitement and enthusiasm in their party members they haven’t seen in years.

“I’ve been traveling this state relentlessly and this is the most energized I’ve seen Republican volunteers in eight years,” said Thomas Del Beccaro, vice chairman of the state GOP. “The fact so many national figures are here in October spells bad news for Democrats. When California is still in play, it means a lot of Eastern states are no longer in play for the Democrats.”

If early exit polling in the East shows GOP wins, “Democrats will be discouraged” here and might not vote, he said.

Then there are others such as Republican John Robinson of Menlo Park, who is discouraged by both parties and plans to “vote every incumbent out, no matter which party they’re in.”

A staunch conservative, Robinson said he doesn’t have “a lot of faith in Democrats or the GOP or anyone else.” But he is sure the majority of ads on TV these last two weeks before the election will be political and “they’re all going to be slinging mud, making claims that aren’t true.”

That kind of negativity, too, affects voter turnout, Baldassare said.

“When people are given a lot of reasons not to vote for the other person, it encourages people not to participate,” he said.

Claire Conlon, executive director of California Young Democrats, and Alex Wara, president of the Democratic Caucus at San Jose State, said they believe students do care — about the environment, about higher education, about the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

When they learned that former President Bill Clinton would be appearing at San Jose State on Sunday with Jerry Brown to help boost support for the candidate in the governor’s race, Conlon said a request was put out for 40 volunteers to help with the crowds and whatever needed to be done — and they got 150 volunteers.

“Peer to peer. They’ll turn out to vote if their peers ask them to,” she said.

Makarian wishes it were that easy. Unlike the enthusiastic students who volunteered for the young Democrat groups, she said, “I feel a lot of students are apathetic. We’re the next generation, so I don’t understand it.”

Thinking about the upcoming generation is what motivates Manuel Perez, 66, of San Jose, to vote. Like many Latinos, he said he resents the backlash against illegal immigrants.

“This country of ours was made up of illegals from all over the world,” he said. “Now they want to push all of the illegals out.”

What matters now, he said, is to keep pushing forward, no matter what.

“We can’t walk backwards,” he said. “You have to stand up and be counted.”

More than anything, he said, it’s now about having a better world for his six grandkids.

“I wouldn’t want them going through the same BS we are.”