Advancing a Free Society

The California GOP's Coastal Blues

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Here are two “chicken or egg” questions to ponder on this, the day Republican presidential hopefuls gathered at the Reagan Presidential Library.

Which came first: Ronald Reagan, the political force of nature, or Reaganism, his transformative set of ideas?

Question #2: has the California Republican Party drifted so right as to be mainstream-unacceptable in its own state, or has California drifted too far to the left in a nation that swung right in the last election?

Let’s save the “loony left” discussion for later this week, when the State Legislatureends its current session with the usual flurry of nutty, “only in California” ideas.

In the meantime, there’s this sobering report from the California Field Poll as to the withered state of the state GOP.

Field shows the political fault line in California: not the usual north-south split, but that other divide between coastal (the 20 counties that border the Pacific Ocean or San Francisco Bay) and inland Californians (the remaining 38 noncoastal counties).

The more populous Coastal California is far more blue; Inland California deeper red. Along the coast, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans, 46%-27%. Two decades ago, it was a 14% difference.

Meanwhile, in the Inland counties, Republicans hold a 40%-38% advantage; two decades ago, Democrats had an 8% edge in voter registration.

The second takeaway: a numbers game that doesn’t add up for the California GOP.

Two decades ago, there were 5.593 million registered Republicans in California. In 2011: 5.307 million, or a loss of about 286,000 Republicans. This, at a time when the state’s total registration actually grew by 2 million voters. Because of this, the GOP’s share of the voter population shrunk from 39% to 31%.

But remember: it’s a state divided into two camps. Registered Republicans in Coastal California fell by nearly 600,000; Republicans living inland increased by more than 300,000.

Here’s yet another way to slice it: two decades ago, 71% of all California Republicans lived in coastal California; now it’s down to 63%. Inland California is now home to 37% of California GOPers, up from 29% two decades ago.

Field also offers a glimpse at why Golden State Republicans at present don’t hold a single statewide office. That would include:

  1. Age. In 1992, 41% of the California GOP consisted of registered Republicans under age-40, with 40% age-50 or older. Today, the split is 25% under age-40 and 50% age-50 or older. That suggests firs-time voters aren’t buying into the Republican brand—and why Barack Obama received a whopping 61% of California’s vote in the 2008 general election.
  2. Ideology. The party’s losing young voters; it’s also shed centrists. At present, half (49%) of all registered California Republicans describe themselves as conservative vs. 34% back in 1992. Meanwhile, the proportion of middle-of-the-road Republicans has fallen from 39% to 28%. Where have they headed? Over to the “decline to state” column (now at 20% and climbing) and looking for centrist candidates.
  3. Race. Two decades ago, Hispanics accounted for only 10% of the California electorate. Since then, per Field, the Latino population has grown by an estimated 2.3 million, from 1.5 million to 3.8 million – in the process, doubling the Latino voters’ share to 22%. In 1984, the year of Ronald Reagan’s second landslide, Latinos accounted for 8% of the California vote. In 2008, the year of the Obama landslide, Latinos accounted for 18% of the California vote. Now, let’s look at the California GOP’s numbers: Latinos made up 10% of the Republican registration two decades ago; today, it’s 11%. What does this mean in practical terms? The Latino vote gave the Democratic ticket a 9% edge as a share of the state’s total, a disadvantage the GOP can’t overcome given the loss of moderates and inability to bring the generational gap.

There’s one other factor that Field didn’t mention but shouldn’t go overlooked: the lack of a Republican pater familias.

Next January will mark 23 years since Ronald Reagan left the White House and 13 years Pete Wilson left California’s State Capitol. George W. Bush didn’t really engage with California during his eight years in office; Arnold Schwarzenegger spent precious little time trying to muscle undecided voters into the Republican column – other than his own campaigns and causes. There was no game plan for using Schwarzenegger’s star power – or the White House’s assorted perks and privileges – for introducing a new generation of Republican candidates to the Golden State.

It’s safe to assume that California Republicans – and voters willing to consider a GOP candidate – are looking for a champion of ideas in the 2012 election.

They’re also looking for a champion, period. That’s a problem for the California GOP, which simply is lacking in household names as well as a political bench.

And it seems a lifetime from the three-decade stretch during which a son of California – Reagan or Richard Nixon – was on the national ticket in seven of nine presidential contests (Republicans carrying California in all but one national election, from 1952 to 1988).

Keep this in mind in the aftermath of the Reagan Library debate. The Republican presidential candidates came to California.

But in terms of establishing a GOP beachhead in the Golden State, did they say anything that resonated outside the carmine inland?