Carson Bruno

The Not-So-Grand Circumstances Of California’s Grand Old Party

 

On the eve of last month’s election, Tony Quinn, a former legislative staffer and California political commentator, predicted President Obama would win California by 14 points, which has been the average California Democratic Presidential advantage since 1992.

Quinn had good reason to forecast a 14-point win: of the eight majors public polls conducted in October, the average presidential spread was 16 points. All of this spelled relatively good news for the California Republican Party.

Of course, the actual results were quite different.

Based on election results as of November’s end, Mitt Romney trailed President Obama by 2.9 million votes (or 23%); Republican Senate challenger Elizabeth Emken trailed incumbent Dianne Feinstein by 3 million votes (a 25% spread).

The unpleasantness continues down-ticket.  Republicans won just 38% of the statewide congressional vote, losing a net of 4 seats and underperforming their primary statewide vote by 2%, even after adjusting for the difference between primary and general election turnout. Meanwhile, Democrats made the necessary gains to reach a 2/3rd majority in both the state Senate and Assembly – the first time that’s happened in California in over a century.

The exit polls offer some context for why the polls (and hence, the predictions) were off-mark.  Across the board, segments of the Democratic coalition have seen relatively large increases in the voter composition; meanwhile, traditional Republican demographics have decreased and the GOP has failed to expand their coalition. Of the estimated 13 million voters who turned out, 56% were white, down 10% from 2004.  Asians and Latinos made up roughly 33% of the electorate in 2012, versus just 25% in 2004.  The overall electorate was much younger than previous years, with 54% being younger than 45 years old compared to 49% in 2004.  Voters 65 years old and older represented just 13% of voters on November 6, 11% less than eight years ago.

More signs of a changing California electorate: 50% of voters in the 2012 election came from the suburbs, up 10% from 2004. Both independents (aka, “no party preference” voters) and Democrats gained compared to 2004 – bumps of 1% and 4%, respectively.  Meanwhile, Republican turnout dropped 5%. Part of the electorate composition is circumstantial to the specifics of this year’s election, but much has to do with the changing demographics of the state.  Since 2000, the Asian population has ballooned by 25% with the Latino population growing by 18%.  The state’s electorate has grown more diverse and more suburban. The Republican Party’s make-up? It’s whiter and more rural.

It’s not like the California GOP couldn’t see this coming.  Though Republican governors presided over Sacramento for the first eight years of the 1990’s and nearly one-half of the following decade, GOP voter registration was on a clear free-fall.  In the autumn of 1994, Republicans accounted for 37% of California’s registered voters.  Four year later, it stood at 35%. By 2010, Republicans had dropped to 31% of registered voters. As voters headed to polls in 2012, Republicans fell to just 29.4% of statewide registered voters. Based on trend lines, the California GOP will be looking at third-party status in as little as 9 years – some say sooner, maybe six years.

So, where does this leave the Grand Old Party at the polling booth?

The chart below provides an electoral comparison between Republicans and Democrats in California, Texas, and Virginia.  Using election results from a myriad of state legislative and executive races between 2006 and 2012, it shows the expected Republican and Democratic share of the vote for average candidates, as well as expected ceilings and floors for strong or weak candidates.

Statewide Electoral Analysis Comparison

California Texas Virginia
Average Republican Candidate

43.5

56.6

52.3

Avg. Republican Candidate Ceiling

46.9

59.9

56.5

Avg. Republican Candidate Floor

39.6

53.3

48.2

Average Democratic Candidate

56.3

41.3

46.8

Avg. Democratic Candidate Ceiling

59.8

45.0

50.6

Avg. Democratic Candidate Floor

52.9

37.6

43.0

 

It should be no surprise that the average California Democratic candidate has a stronghold on electoral victory. Yet, if compared to the minority party in Texas, the California Republicans look to be in a slightly better position.  While the average Republican candidate receives 44% in California, the average Texas Democratic candidate only garners 41% of the vote.

While the ranges for the Democrats and Republicans in California are the same, the placement of the Republican’s ceiling and floor suggests the quality of the Republican candidate is significantly more important than the Democrat’s quality.  The Republican Party needs a strong candidate, while a weak Democratic candidate would start off with the necessary majority.  In this regard, Republicans should look to Virginia, where a strong Democratic candidate can beat his/her Republican opponent, despite the slight right-leaning tilt.

However, the Democrats in Texas and Virginia have an advantage that the Republicans in California do not: the presence of third-party candidates on the November ballot.  While a Democrat can pull off victory in Texas or Virginia with a plurality of the vote, a Republican candidate in California needs to win a majority of the November electorate. That’s because California’s new “top-two” system allows only the two leading vote-getters from the state’s June ballot to advance to November. As of right now, only an exceptionally unique Republican candidate could win statewide in California.

The interesting predicament of the California Republican Party extends further.  Just finding a strong gubernatorial candidate may not be enough to pull the other down ballot Republicans across the finish line.  The table below shows the two-party vote percentages for the Republican gubernatorial candidate, as well as the average for various other statewide offices – lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer and controller – and the average of the aggregated statewide two-party percentage for State Assembly and Congressional elections.  It also depicts the differences between the down ballot average two-party vote share and the gubernatorial candidate’s percentage.

Average 2 Party GOP Vote %

Down Ballot/Top Ballot Race Difference

Year

GOP Gov.

2 Party %

Statewide

Legislative

Statewide

Legislative

1994

57.6

50.7

50.5

-6.9

-7.1

1998

39.8

43.3

46.0

3.5

6.2

2002

47.3

46.5

45.9

-0.8

-1.4

2006

59.0

44.3

42.9

-14.7

-16.1

2010

43.2

42.7

44.7

-0.5

1.5

Overall Avg.

49.4

45.5

46.0

-3.9

-3.3

The table shows no strong relationship between the performance of the gubernatorial candidate and down-ballot races.  Take the examples of former California GOP Govs. Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger, each re-elected in a landslide (Schwarzenegger winning by a shade under 17%; Wilson by 14.5%). Wilson’s strength appears to have helped slightly in 1994, the year of the GOP’s “Contract With America”; Schwarzenegger’s coattails couldn’t overcome the growing anti-Republican California sentiment amidst the national Democratic wave in 2006. Still, down-ballot candidates performed better than gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren in 1998 (Lungren losing to Gray Davis by nearly 20%).

All of this suggests that the individual races are largely independent of each other and more dependent on the political environment in California.  On average, down-ballot Republicans do about 3% worse than their gubernatorial candidate at the top of the ticket. If this were to hold true, then under the top-two system the Republican gubernatorial candidate would have to win 53% of the vote for the down-ballot Republicans to have a chance, which is about 9% better than the Republican’s expected average percentage.

A brief look at California’s voter population centers makes the Republicans’ struggle even more apparent.  The table below separates the state into seven regions and shows, as of October 2012, the region’s voter registration breakdowns.

 

Eligible

Registered

Dem

GOP

NPP

Other

Bay Area

17.2%

17.5%

51.7%

17.9%

25.0%

5.39%

Central Coast

3.9%

3.9%

45.2%

28.1%

21.4%

5.36%

Inland Empire

11.7%

10.5%

37.7%

38.2%

19.1%

4.94%

Northern Coast

2.8%

2.8%

47.6%

23.9%

22.0%

6.53%

Sacramento Valley

7.2%

6.9%

42.8%

32.0%

20.2%

4.94%

San Joaquin Valley

9.9%

8.8%

39.1%

39.5%

16.8%

4.63%

Sierras

3.1%

3.3%

29.1%

44.8%

20.4%

5.74%

Southern Coast

44.2%

46.2%

43.6%

28.7%

20.7%

7.02%

Total

100.0%

100.0%

43.7%

29.4%

20.9%

6.04%

 

With almost 5 out of every 10 votes coming from the southern coastal region of the state – Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange and Ventura counties – Republicans have to step up their competitiveness.  The more “Republican” regions – the Inland Empire, the Sierras, and the San Joaquin Valley – represent only 23% of the state’s registered voters and only 25% of eligible voters. Translation: there’s not much room for electoral growth.

The Republican Party’s troubles are best captured by Steve Cooley’s narrow 1-point loss in the 2010 Attorney General’s campaign.  Despite barely winning the Southern Coast and the Sacramento Valley – racking up double-digit margins in the Sierras, the Inland Empire, and the San Joaquin Valley, and maintaining reasonable margins in the Bay Area and Northern Coast – Cooley still fell 74,000 votes shy of victory.

After adjusting for the new top-two system, had Cooley turned his 7-point loss in the Central Coast into a narrow win and either incrementally closed the gap some more in the Bay Area or slightly increased his advantage in the Southern Coast, he would have won.  However, those adjustments would mean Cooley needed to flip between 97,000 and 116,000 voters (assuming the voter composition stayed the same), which is difficult as Democrat voter rolls outnumber the Republican’s by margins of close to two- to three-to-one in those regions.

The facts line up squarely against the GOP: California’s Republican Party continues to hemorrhage support statewide. Unless changes are made, it will continue to lose elections – circumstances that don’t make the Grand Old Party seem all that grand.

Carson Bruno is a Hoover Institution research analyst.

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