Wednesday, November 21, 2012

California: Purple to Blue

Time makes some claims about California politics:

There was a time when California was Republican. The state voted red in six straight presidential elections until Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992. Since then, it has voted solidly Democrat for President. Experts say this decline can be partly traced back to former Republican governor Pete Wilson’s endorsement of Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative that aimed to deny undocumented immigrants access to public services.
These claims do not tell the whole story. In four of the six elections that it mentions, the Republican nominee was Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, both of whom had California roots.  (And in 1972 and 1984, 48 other states went Republican, too.)

California has not been a solidly Republican state for a very long time. In his 1949 book, California: The Great Exception, Carey McWilliams wrote: "California is a state that lacks a political gyroscope, a state that swings and sways, spins and turns in accordance with its own peculiar dynamics."  When he wrote the book, Harry Truman had just carried the state in the 1948 presidential election even though the GOP vice presidential nominee was Governor Earl Warren.

Some additional data:

  • The last time there were more registered Republicans than Democrats in California was 1932. 
  • Democrats have controlled the State Assembly for 48 of the past 52 years.  They have controlled the State Senate for 50 of the past 52.
  • In those 52 years, there have been 14 gubernatorial elections (including the 2003 recall).  Democrats won six, Republicans eight.
What is true is that Republicans have been doing worse in California over the past 20 years.  Democrats control all statewide offices and 2/3 majorities in the Legislature. Is the Hispanic vote the reason? The key word in the Time passage is "partly." The Hispanic vote has contributed to the GOP's decline but has not been the sole cause of it.  In the 1998 gubernatorial race, for instance, Democrat Gray Davis would have defeated Dan Lungren without any Hispanic votes at all.

Ever since the 2000 election and its TV maps, we've associated red with the GOP, blue with the Democrats.  California has not been a red state in living memory It is more accurate to say that California has gone from being a purple state (mixed red and blue) to a blue state. The Hispanic vote is one important reason for this shift, but there are others, such as economic changes stemming from the end of the Cold War.

For more detail, see Sean Trende's excellent 2010 article.