It may seem incredible, but supposedly blue-state
California is hemorrhaging Democrats.
Since 1990, when a majority of voters were registered Democrats, the
party's share of the electorate has dropped to just 43 percent today. In fact,
even as the state has grown, the number of Democratic voters has shrunk.
There are about 100,000 fewer Democrats today than there were nearly 10
years ago, even though there are nearly 2 million more voters.
That doesn't sound like the state that voted 13 points to the left of the
nation in last year's presidential contest, so predictably that California
was declared for John Kerry the moment polls closed. But as poorly as
Democrats are faring in California, Republicans are doing even worse.
When pollsters ask California voters to identify their party loyalties, those
who describe themselves as independents far outnumber Republicans.
So what does this mean? A profound change is certainly under way
in California's electorate for two reasons. One is that the major parties are
rapidly disintegrating because they cling to an outdated ideology that no
longer represents a majority of voters. In the last decade, a whopping 91
percent of the growth in the electorate has come from voters registering
outside of the two major parties. The second reason is the growing participation of Latino voters. The increase helped
tip the state to Democrats in the last decade, but that may be a temporary response to the Republican Party's sponsorship
of Proposition 187, the watershed ballot measure in 1994 to deny public benefits for illegal immigrants. Today, Latino adults are more likely than whites to register outside
of the two major parties and in polls, the profile of Latino voters is fairly balanced. Roughly equal thirds describe themselves as conservative, middle-of-the-road or liberal.
One thing that has never changed in California is that it remains a maverick state identified with the courageous
spirit of its newcomers. It was founded in 1850 by dream chasers who left their homes for the chance of a fortune in gold. A century later, it doubled in size as the nation's archetype of the modern, middle class suburb. And today, it's still being shaped by the vision of immigrants bold
enough to settle a strange new place in hopes of a better life.
California is different from the rest of the nation. Not only is it populated by pioneers, but other places are
dominated by those who stayed behind. The contrast is difficult to measure, but it's unmistakable in the state's unique political expression. This is the home of frontier
independents. They are more entrepreneurial in their outlooks, more anti-establishment, more libertarian and more indulgent of individual lifestyle. They ended affirmative
action and passed medical marijuana on the same 1996 ballot. And last year, even as they went left for Kerry, they sided with the state Chamber of Commerce on all three of
its ballot priorities.
"There is a risk-taking side to Californians that is unique," said Republican consultant Sal Russo. "Americans
are all that way [compared] to Europeans, but California is that way compared to America."
In many ways, it is the single trait that binds a disparate state. By 2000, a quarter of Californians were foreign born and there were sizable communities from more than 60 countries, arguably making it the most
diverse population in the world. California has four of the largest 15 cities in America, each much different than the
other. Its regional economies are also so distinct they often move in opposite directions simultaneously.
When asked 25 years ago to describe the state's common ground, California magazine editor William Broyles
Jr. explained, "Most cultures are united by their pasts. Californians have in common a belief in the future, a sense that anything is possible."
Two recent decisions by California voters demonstrate that the state's iconoclast nature is as strong as ever. The first is the unprecedented recall in 2003 of an incumbent governor and the election of a political neophyte who ran on an anti-establishment platform. The second is the vote in November 2004 to generously invest in the amazing, but unproven, potential of stem cell research to improve the quality of life and grow the state's economy.
Paul Maslin, whose firm did polling for the initiative, believes the stem cell issue would have polarized most states between the pro-life right and pro-choice left. But in
California, the ideological debate never surfaced. The stem cell measure won on its optimism. And it was backed by virtually every demographic group, as well as parts of the state where President George Bush fared well.
"I can't imagine another initiative this big," Maslin said. "There was a way this could be close. But for all of the
problems this state has gone through, Californians are still willing to step out there and say,
Copyright 2005, California Journal