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California's Blue Drift Boosts Democrats

Updated on January 5, 2012

Only six states are more reliably Republican at the presidential level. The state hasn’t voted for a Democrat for President since the 1964 landslide, and it’s served as the political launch pad for two GOP icons, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. In the last fifty years, Republicans have usually held the Governor’s mansion, in addition to at least a few other statewide offices. California is generally thought to be in the pocket of the Republican nominee in the coming election.

All this is true—in 1991.

Only Massachusetts has given itself more completely to the Democratic Party since the election of 1992, when California awarded its treasure trove of electoral votes to Democrats, and has been a lock for liberal nominees since. In 2010 California bucked a national Republican tide by electing Democrat Jerry Brown as Governor, and they simultaneously gave him Democratic supermajorities in the legislatures to work with. Barack Obama’s victory in 2008—he cruised to win with 62%-- makes five straight presidential elections in which Republicans haven’t been competitive in a state that used to favor them.

For decades, Republicans romped to victory in California, and since 1992 they’ve been routed there. So what happened?

There are several explanations. Increased urbanization in the most populous state may have accounted for some of the Democratic trend. And it’s no secret that the social conservatism of the GOP doesn’t wear well anymore in the Golden State. But if they had to pinpoint one catalyst for the political transformation, I suspect most political scientists would point to changing demographics.

California is the first state in the Union to have non-white voters make up over half of the electorate. Since 2005, more Hispanics are being born than whites in California, and more than half of the children under five years old in the state are Hispanic. This trend, beginning to be realized in the early 1990’s, has been accelerating ever since. The new Hispanic plurality goes a long way towards explaining why California, the largest state in America and with an economy that rivals that of Great Britain, bears little resemblance to the state that in the 1970’s was governed by Ronald Reagan.

If you need more convincing as to the moribund situation Republicans find themselves in with respect to California, just ponder these facts. In 2010, a year in which Republicans were energized and the Democratic base suffered from lackluster turnout, Republicans failed to capture a single new congressional seat in California, and they also lost every statewide contest, including the crucial races for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and Treasurer. Democrats actually increased their majorities in both the State Senate and the State House. And finally, President Obama’s margin of victory in California was historic. He received 3,262,692 more votes than John McCain, the largest margin a winner has enjoyed over the runner up in any state in any Presidential election in history.

California’s blue drift shouldn’t just be grim news for Republicans. It should be a serious source of distress for the party. The President leads his closest rival in the Golden State, Mitt Romney, by 18 points in an average of polls, and Republicans show no signs of wishing to seriously contest the election there. In the competition for 270 electoral votes this fall, Barack Obama can put 55 EV’s from California straight into his pocket.

It's not just a question of electoral calculations in 2012, however. Losing the largest state in the Union is a big blow to the GOP, but not a fatal one. The big question for me at least is what Republicans will do when other states with exploding minority growth--Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and even Texas--begin to show the same symptoms of transformation as California. This string of states were crucial to the last two Republican Presidential victories.

So what do you think? Am I right in my assessment that the demographic changes threaten the very viability of the national Republican Party? Only time will tell, and in the meantime please feel free to throw in your two cents, even and especially if you disagree. This is a conversation Republicans need to be having with one another.


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    • Mark Sparks profile image

      Mark Sparks 5 years ago from Charlottesville, Virginia

      Hi, Patriette!I agree that the upcoming election will be pivotal. Newt was right, I think, when he called it the most important since 1864.

      Yeah, California is a mess. Maybe I will write about Jerry Brown soon.From what I hear he's definitley one of the more interesting governors.

    • Patriette profile image

      Patriette 5 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      Mark, I wish there was a button for rating articles as 'depressing'.  I've lived in California all my  adult life, used to be a Reagan Democrat and have been a full-blown Republican since 1988. Regretfully, the Golden State is hopeless, and the saying, "where goes California, there goes the rest of the country" (or something to that effect), speaks volumes about where this country is headed. All elections are consequential, but this upcoming election cycle 2012 will be more historical than even the historical election of the first African American president, Barack Obama! Very thoughtful and insightful analysis, Mark. Voting UP and interesting.

    • Mark Sparks profile image

      Mark Sparks 6 years ago from Charlottesville, Virginia

      Not sure I understand. Do you mean the parties are too similar for it to matter?

    • maxoxam41 profile image

      Deforest 6 years ago from USA

      Democrats/republicans. Same fight against us. Why to proscratinate?