The Golden State moves from magenta to cobalt
John J. Pitney, Jr., professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, wrote “California: The Great Exception,” a chapter in Larry J. Sabato’s Pendulum Swing, an analysis of the 2010 midterms. The Port Side met with Pitney and discussed California’s political history.
Pitney asserts California did not turn blue. California was “never really a red state, it was more of a purple state that turned more blue.”
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, California voted for Republicans in presidential elections. Pitney does not believe this means the state leaned Republican, however. To get a better picture of California’s political landscape, Pitney points to the “state legislature, as it is more indicative of a state’s voting tendencies.” Over the last 40 years, Democrats have controlled both chambers of the Legislature (save once), and their hold is only increasing. This trend has been ignored nationally because statewide elections rarely impact national politics.
But why did Californians keep voting for Republican presidential candidates and then suddenly switch to Democrats in the 1990s? In four of the six elections before Clinton started the Democratic winning spree, the Republican candidate running for president was a California native. Nixon and Reagan carried their home state in their four elections. Even Jimmy Carter carried his home state of Georgia in 1980, when he carried only 6 states (plus DC) in losing to Reagan. Similar home-state advantages played a large role in California’s Republican presidential votes during the 1970s and 1980s.
These presidential elections provide little insight into why California has gone from“purple to blue-ish” since the early 1990s. While there is no one overarching explanation for transformation, many small factors combine to help explain the trend. After Reagan’s presidency, the political parties began sorting themselves on ideological terms. Presently, we associate Democrats with liberalism and Republicans with conservatism, but it wasn’t always this way. Senators like Zell Miller, a conservative Democrat from Georgia, and Lincoln Chaffe, a liberal Republican from Rhode Island, exemplified this. As the number of these sorts of politicians has dwindled, the parties have become more diametrically opposed in nature; as the parties become more divided, California’s Democratic leanings are increasingly evident. The trend may be as simple as Californians identifying largely as liberals, and Democrats increasingly representing liberalism. Another explanation is that California has many large cities and a constantly rising minority population, both of which tend to lean left.
Additionally, WWII-created defense industries have moved out of California since the early 1990’s. During the war, the U.S. defense industry exploded in size, and a large part of it was centered in California. Predictably, the defense industry tends to vote conservatively. At the end of the Cold War, defense industries were either moved out of the state or simply cut altogether, being replaced by service industries. Service industries are not only notoriously liberal, but are usually the catalyst for much of the liberal legislation and lobbying in Washington, D.C. As these service industries set up shop in the coastal areas where the defense industry once sat, the liberal shift was large enough to become visible, and as they grew so too did their voting transparency.
Now California is split ideologically along the East-West line, due in large part to this movement. Pitney says, “if you can smell salt water, you probably live in a blue district.”
As these coastal districts rapidly grow in population, and other trends continue to move in the Democratic direction, California will continue to turn darker blue on the election maps that dominate the electoral scene every two years.