Lies, Damn Lies, And Statistics—And California’s “Red Ceiling”

Thursday, November 15, 2018
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For all the talk of a “blue wave” and a “red wall” colliding in this election, let’s talk about the “red ceiling” in the nation’s biggest (and pretty much bluest) state.

That would be California, where Republicans, much like kids trying to get on a carnival ride, were denied admission because of height restrictions.

A quick glimpse at the latest tally (ballots are still being counted in California – and will be for some time) shows Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox with a shade over 3.6 million votes (about 39% of the overall tally).

The remaining Republican statewide candidates were hard-pressed to reach 3.3 million votes.

Now, let’s take a look at the numbers in the last California midterm.

In 2014, statewide Republicans all fell between a high of 3.285 million votes (Secretary of State candidate Pete Peterson) and a low of 2.925 million votes (the same Greg Conlon, running for the same office of Treasurer).

The problem with that set of numbers: the last Republican to win a statewide office in California – let me amend that to: “the last Republican who wasn’t a celebrity on a first-name basis with worldwide film audiences” – was an earnest gent named Steve Poizner. He’s a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was elected State Insurance Commissioner in 2006 by managing to collect 4.229 million votes.

Poizner was back on the ballot last week, running again for the job he once held in Sacramento. Only, this time he ran as an independent (in California, the official nomenclature is “no party preference”). And once all of the votes are counted, he’ll likely lose. At last count, Poizner trailed in his race by 258,000 votes (a 51.5%-48.5% split).

Here’s what’s interesting about Poizner’s campaign. He ran decidedly free of partisan labels (“fiercely independent” in big, bold letters on his campaign’s home page). He had far more hands-on insurance experience than his opponent (this is important as California is one of the world’s five largest insurance markets). And he ran the table on newspaper endorsements.

Yet, as of Wednesday’s vote count, Poizner stood almost exactly where he was twelve years ago – 4.227 million votes in 2018; 4.229 million votes in 2006.

What to make of this?

Yes, State Sen. Ricardo Lara, Poizner’s Democratic opponent, spent plenty to remind voters that Poizner was an immigration hardliner when he ran in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary (the last election before California switched to the present top-two primary system). Perhaps that explains why Lara ran up a 448,000-vote advantage in Los Angeles County.

Or maybe the problem was in presentation.

The only other race in which a non-Democrat had a shot at winning is the contest for Superintendent of Public Instruction. As of yesterday, charter-school advocate Marshall Tuck trailed by 76,000 votes.

Like Poizner, Tuck was making his second run for the same job (he lost 2014’s race, 52%-48%). And, like Poizner, his opponent tried to portray him as a wolf in sheep’s clothing (Thurmond ran ads linking Tuck to billionaire education reformers and (falsely) Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos).

However, Tuck was running in a contest devoid of labels (on California’s ballot, candidates for Superintendent of Public Instruction are listed as “nonpartisan”). And his television buy included passing references to his endorsement by Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Perhaps that’s why Tuck has fared better than Poizner to this point. Lacking the “Democratic” label next to his name, Thurmond received about 486,000 fewer votes than Lara. Thurmond played the Trump card; Tucked played his Obama card. In pivotal Los Angeles County, Tuck trailed Thurmond by 250,000 votes. But Thurmond received 163,000 fewer county votes than Lara – more than enough votes to assure a statewide victory.

Tuck, by the way, will wind up with at least 1 million more votes than he received in 2014. Poizner will surpass his 2006 total – only, far less dramatically than Tuck.

Perhaps the story here is one of currency. Tuck lost four years ago and, basically, never stopped running (just as Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom was elected lieutenant governor eight years ago, but in essence has been running for governor the entire decade).

But there’s also a debate to be had about approach.

Campaigning as a nonpartisan is a noble concept in an age when voters complain about both parties’ ideological excesses. But to approach a run for California statewide office from slightly right of center, which the pro-business Poizner attempted in this cycle, is problematic given the low GOP ceiling in statewide elections.

Further complicating things: a look at California voter-registration numbers for the past 20 years shows an eroding Republican presence.

In 1998, registered Republicans accounted for 35% of a voter base approaching 15 million Californians. In 2018, the electorate is just shy of 20 million votes. The GOP share: a mere 24%.

Here’s how the deck has reshuffled in California. There are now 3.5 million more “no party preference” Californians than in 1998, plus an additional 1.57 million registered Democrats. However, there are 580,000 fewer registered Republicans than in 1998 – a bigger population than Fresno or Long Beach.

To the adage “lies, damn lies and statistics”: California’s voter-registration numbers speak the truth. The GOP influence in the Golden State is not what is was two decades ago. The votes just aren’t there for a center-right run.

On other words, ceiling is believing.