By Sherry Bebitch and Douglas Jeffe
Nov 20 (Reuters) - The changing face of the American electorate is etched all over the map of California. The Golden State may no longer be a partisan battleground, but it continues to be a reliable bellwether for the evolving national political landscape.
Even as President Barack Obama won a second term with an electorate that mirrored the demographic trends that have made California deep blue, Golden State voters chose to raise taxes to fund education and gave Democrats a two-thirds “supermajority” in both houses of the state legislature-meaning Democratic lawmakers will have the ability to raise taxes without a single Republican vote.
This willingness to increase taxes to pay for schools and other long-underfunded public services, coupled with California voters’ rejection of the GOP’s “no new taxes” mantra-up and down the ballot-could well echo across the nation, just as the passage of the state’s Proposition 13 ignited the anti-tax movement more than three decades ago.
Once upon a time, the Golden State was a Republican bastion. From 1952 through 1988, only one Democratic presidential candidate - Lyndon B. Johnson - carried California. It may have helped that a Californian - either Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan - was on the GOP ticket for seven of those 10 elections. Until former Governor Jerry Brown’s “Back to the Future” victory in 2010, Republicans had won 10 of the previous 15 gubernatorial elections.
How times have changed. In 2010 - a great year for Republicans nationally - Democrats scored overwhelming victories in California. Brown swamped billionaire business executive Meg Whitman and her prodigious spending, and Senator Barbara Boxer easily fended off a challenge from another wealthy GOP standard-bearer, Carly Fiorina. Democratic candidates took every statewide office, maintained their legislative majorities and held all their congressional seats.
That was just a warm-up for 2012.
Obama’s 21-point victory over Mitt Romney in the Golden State marked the sixth straight presidential election in which California has convincingly delivered its electoral prize to the Democratic ticket. And the margins haven’t even been close. In 2000, Republicans feigned a serious effort in California, and Vice President Al Gore was snookered into spending election eve in Los Angeles instead of in Florida or Tennessee. Now the GOP doesn’t even bother with a head fake; all of California’s 55 electoral votes are placed safely in the Democratic column before the race even begins. More telling, Democrats picked up four congressional seats and secured their two-thirds majorities in both the State Assembly and Senate, rendering the GOP virtually powerless in Sacramento.
How this transformation occurred is obvious. In politics, demographics and culture drive destiny. California’s population is now majority minority.
On Nov. 6, 44 percent of California voters were non-white, according to CNN exit polls. White males comprised only 29 percent of the state’s electorate. African-American voting power has eroded in California; blacks made up only 8 percent of the state’s voters. But that turnout has been more than surpassed by Latinos (22 percent of voters) and Asian-Americans (11 percent).
African-Americans in California gave Obama 96 percent of their vote, Latinos 72 percent and Asian-Americans 79 percent. Even in this very blue state, Romney captured 53 percent of the white vote - still not nearly enough to head off an electoral thrashing.
Post-election analysis by pundits inside and outside the Beltway has centered on the growth of the country’s non-white electorate as a major source of grief for the Republican Party. In this respect, California has been ahead of the curve for years.
The GOP probably has itself to blame for the disaffection of Latino and Asian-American voters. Latinos, with their conservative family values, were once considered logical prospects for Republican ideas and candidates, but it hasn’t worked out that way.
During his 1994 re-election campaign, Republican Governor Pete Wilson famously - or infamously - championed Proposition 187, an initiative to deny undocumented immigrants schooling and healthcare. Wilson and Proposition 187 won that year, but Latino leaders and voters were turned off.
Their antipathy to the GOP has been reinforced by the anti-immigrant posture of national Republican politics. One of the most vocal members of the California Assembly’s GOP caucus is founder of the Minutemen Corps of California, which patrols the border for illegal immigrants. Nationally, any headway that President George W. Bush made in cultivating Latino votes has been wiped out by the strident anti-immigrant rhetoric spewed during the Republican primary season.
It used to be that Asian-Americans tilted toward the Republican Party in California. Large numbers of Taiwanese and disaffected Chinese took up residence in San Francisco and Los Angeles County, while South Vietnamese refugees migrated to Orange County. Democratic President Harry Truman was not the most beloved figure among Japanese Americans. For a long time the Asian-American constituencies, although relatively small in number, were politically similar to Cuban-Americans in Florida.
That has changed as the Asian-American population has grown and new generations have submerged - or forgotten - the old grudges. A tipping point may have come when President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore were attacked over campaign fundraisers held in the Asian community. Where Republicans saw scandal, Asian-Americans saw anti-immigrant jingoism. Whatever the reason, one of the fastest growing sectors of the population has placed itself off-limits to most Republican candidates.
Cultural and social issues have also played against the Republican brand in California. Fully 69 percent of Election Day voters in California said abortion should be legal. Though Proposition 8, the ban on gay marriage, managed to win a majority when it was on the ballot in 2008, 56 percent of 2012 voters said they approve of gay marriage.
The advent of 24-hour cable, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and hyperventilated bloviating on television and radio talk shows has created an echo chamber that has driven us into ideological bunkers. Every word uttered by Rick Santorum in Iowa, by Newt Gingrich in South Carolina or Todd Akin in Missouri is heard loud and clear in California’s cities and suburbs. No wonder there was an 11 percent gender gap in California, with Obama carrying 72 percent of the state’s single women voters.
The Republican Party’s retreat into its older, white base has left the GOP on the decline in California. Like the Tea Party in 2010, California’s GOP scored significant victories in the late ‘70s with the “Proposition 13 babies” - the legislative candidates who were the legacy of Howard Jarvis’ anti-tax crusade - but the party has never moved on.
Decades of closed GOP primaries eventually forced moderate Republicans off the playing field. Aside from embracing the usual litany of conservative positions on social issues, the Republican Party in California has come to be seen as singing a one-note song, whose only refrain is “no new taxes.” Well, California voters have moved on, leaving the GOP largely out in the cold.
Does this mean a guarantee of one-party rule in California for decades to come? Not necessarily. The Democrats always have the ability to overreach, and their agenda could be undone by the fiscal implications of their fealty to public employee unions, trial lawyers and others who put up political money for Democratic candidates. Yet even if Democrats stumble badly in the state, there is no indication that the Republican Party can resurrect itself. What we may see instead is the advent of “no party government.”
California has a brand-new “top two” system that sends the leading primary vote getters, regardless of party affiliation, into a general election runoff. While the Republican share of the California electorate has continued to shrink and the Democratic percentage has been a little more stable, “No Party Preference (NPP)” registration has shot up - more than one in five voters now opt for no affiliation. As the electorate and political activists get acclimated to the system, NPP candidates may start to show real appeal for Californians disgusted by both parties.
Whatever happens in the Golden State is likely to be a precursor of the next trend in American politics. For better or worse, America has become California.