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Sonoma County is a sea of blue, reflecting the political bent that makes it the ninth-most liberal among California's 58 counties.

Sonoma and neighboring Mendocino County, at No. 8, are nearly tied on a political consultant's scorecard that puts nine greater Bay Area counties — and Los Angeles — on the top 10 list of most left-leaning counties.

Sparsely populated inland Northern California counties anchor the conservative list, and neither ranking is a surprise to anyone familiar with state politics.

But the California Political Precinct Index brings a detailed methodology to the blue vs. red ratings, using the votes on selected state ballot measures as an indicator of political ideology.

"It is indisputably valid," said Terry Price, a Santa Rosa political consultant. The index's scores are based on voting for "specific wedge issues," such as marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage, he said.

Moreover, Price and Herb Williams, another Santa Rosa political consultant, said the scores match their own experience in managing local political campaigns.

For example, the index identifies a portion of Santa Rosa — including the junior college, downtown, Proctor Terrace, McDonald Avenue and Railroad Square neighborhoods — as more liberal than the rest of the city.

"Those are the voters who elect progressive candidates," Price said.

Williams noted that areas surrounding Windsor and north of Healdsburg, rated as right-of-center by the index, formed the base that elected conservatives Nick Esposti and Paul Kelley to the county Board of Supervisors for three decades.

David Latterman, the San Francisco political consultant who compiles the index, acknowledged that his finding for Sonoma County is "not an earth-shattering conclusion."

"It's a perfectly respectable liberal county," said Latterman, who is associate director of the University of San Francisco's Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good.

Sonoma County voters favored legalizing marijuana in 2010 and rejected a ban on same-sex marriage in 2008 — in both cases running counter to the statewide vote — and have not elected a Republican state or federal legislator since 1996.<NO1><NO>

The county didn't match Bay Area liberal hotbeds like San Francisco, Alameda and Marin counties, which posted three of the top four liberal scores in the 2012 update of Latterman's index.

"But who does?" Latterman said.

<NO1><NO><NO1><NO>Overall, the county's most liberal <NO1><NO>areas, with index scores in the 70s, <NO1><NO>are within the cities and scattered throughout west county and along the Russian River.

Suburban and rural areas outside cities are generally less liberal in the rest of the county, a pattern that Latterman said is repeated throughout the state.

Route 99 in the Central Valley runs through a solidly red political landscape, punctuated by liberal blue pockets in cities like Fresno, Modesto and Bakersfield.

Sonoma and Mendocino counties scored in the low 60s on a scale of zero to 100, with zero the most conservative, both well above the statewide score of 56.3.

The ideological midpoint of the index is 50.

One of Mendocino's precincts scored a midnight blue 100, the highest in the state, while a Kern County precinct earned a rock-ribbed red zero.

Lake County scored a 55.5.

Latterman developed the current index by crunching election results in more than 20,000 precincts statewide, using the votes on nine selected ballot measures in 2008 and 2010.

Ballot measures dealing with social issues, such as marijuana and gay marriage, and money matters like state bonds are "definable on a left-right scale," Latterman said.

<NO1><NO>Campaign consultants use data like Latterman's to indicate "where the grass is greener" for a given candidate's message, said Price, who has worked on campaigns with Latterman.

<CW-15>In door-to-door canvassing, he said, the goal is <NO1><NO>to talk about issues that matter to the residents. If the message doesn't resonate in the neighborhood, the effort is fruitless, Price said.</CW>

<NO1><NO>Williams <NO1><NO>said he compiles voting records, as well as socio-economic data like age and length of residency, to develop his own political precinct profiles.

<NO1><NO>Mendocino County, a liberal bastion overall, is actually a land of political extremes, Wil-liams said, from the ultraliberal coast to conservative inland areas like Potter Valley and Willits.

On Latterman's index, Mendocino's score runs from 35.6 to 100, a range of more than 64points, one of the largest ideological spans in the state.

Sonoma County is far more homogeneous, with a 38-point range from conservative 40 to liberal 78.

San Francisco's range is about the same, at 36 points, but it starts at 50, the mid-point, and moves left to 86.

In rural Calaveras County, the range is just 14 points, the smallest in the state, from 36 to 50.

Latterman's index does not include income as a factor, and he said it shows up in different ways around the nation.

"By and large, wealthier areas are more conservative, but you get the rich liberal effect in California," he said.

Most of Santa Rosa, including low-income areas of Roseland and South Park as well as upscale Fountaingrove and Oakmont, scored in the 60s, the same ideological range.

"You have to drive around the neighborhoods" to know their political nature, Price said. Roseland is a mix of low-income homes, where many residents are ineligible to vote, located near more valuable ranchettes.

Oakmont's elderly population might seem like a conservative bloc, but the community on Santa Rosa's far eastern flank has an active Democratic Club, Price said.

To access the California Political Precinct Index online, go to http://www.usfca.edu/osl/

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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