California’s Polarization

by Richard Sousa
Monday, February 6, 2017

With all due respect, I believe my colleague Sam Abrams has it all wrong. He argues that when examining California voter registration data at the county level, the polarization along party lines and the partisanship in the state are not as deep as commonly portrayed. He is, however, using the wrong metrics and drawing the wrong conclusions.

In the wake of the 2016 election, much has been made of the Democratic Party’s decline throughout the country. California, with its landslide vote for Hillary Clinton, Democrats in every statewide elected position, and a Democratic supermajority in the state legislature, is seen as one of the party’s few beacons.

After analyzing party registration data by county, Abrams says not so fast. I disagree.

It may be true that “all politics is local.” But a political party’s power is measured not at the county seat but in state capitals and in Washington. Further, for all the emphasis pollsters put on voter registration, it is the voters’ revealed preferences—whom they actually vote for—that matter, not how they register. Nowhere was that more evident than in President Trump’s election when the polls were so terribly wrong.

In statewide elections California has been a one-party state since the mid-1990s. If we see Governor Schwarzenegger’s 2008 election an aberration (as I do), California has not elected a Republican as governor since Pete Wilson won in 1994. In the last two elections, Governor Brown defeated his Republican opponent by 20 and 12 percentage points.

There are currently no Republicans holding statewide offices, and since 1998 only three Republicans have been elected to a statewide office: Bill Jones as secretary of state in 1998, Steve Poizner as insurance commissioner in 2002, and Schwarzenegger.

One-sided voting—both Republican and Democratic—dominated the recent elections that sent our representatives to Washington. California has seated two Democrats as US senators since 1992; Pete Wilson was the last Republican voted into the US Senate and that was in 1988. No political party in California had sent such an uninterrupted flow of senators to Washington in the state’s history. The continued success of the Democrats was ensured by the returns from California’s top-two primary that resulted in two Democrats running for California’s US senate seat in 2016.

Democrats dominate California’s fifty-three-seat US House of Representatives delegation, but, regardless of which party representative won, the 2016 election results were one-sided. Forty-five of the races pitted a Democratic against a Republican candidate. In twenty-nine of those races, the winner received at least 60 percent of the vote (according to political scientists, the landslide or polarized level). In another eleven races, the winner received at least 55 percent of the vote—a margin of more than 10 percentage points, meeting the more relaxed threshold for a landslide. Only five of California’s House seats were truly competitive in 2016.

In the state legislature, the picture is bleak for Republicans. Democrats hold twenty-seven of the forty seats in the California Senate and fifty-five of eighty in the state assembly. The Democrats have held the majority in both houses since 1997 and now hold supermajorities (that is, at least two-thirds of the seats) in both houses, allowing Democrats to pass most legislation without any Republican votes.

The pattern of landslides (regardless of party) holds for California’s state legislature as well. In 2016’s eighty assembly seat races, only fifty-nine were up for grabs. The other twenty-one were single-party races, pitted a major party candidate against a minor party candidate, or had only one candidate.

Of the fifty-nine contested seats, forty-four (three-quarters) were won in landslides; in another nine races, the margin of victory was more the 10 percentage points. Only six of the eighty seats were competitive. We find similar results in the twenty state senate races. Only three of the races between members of the two major parties were decided by fewer than 10 percentage points.

Voter registration data do not portray as much partisanship but the data do display an interesting pattern. Since 2000 the percentage of registered Democrats in California has stayed at roughly 44 percent; those registered as Republicans, however, has fallen from 35 percent to 26 percent. The gap was filled not by registrations for minor parties but by those expressing no party preference. In the 2000 to 2016 period, that proportion rose from 14 percent to 24 percent of the registered voters.

Surveys conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California report that there are few truly independent voters in California. Nearly three-quarters of those who register with no party affiliation lean either Republican or Democratic. With that in mind, a closer look at the California voter registration data supports the polarized view.

If nearly a quarter of the registrants do not identify a party, it is difficult to reach the 60 percent polarization threshold. Achieving that level requires 80 percent of those declaring to side with one party. It is not surprising that only four of California’s fifty-three congressional districts are defined as polarized.

When examining data only for those who registered as either a Democrat or a Republican, thirty-five of the congressional districts are polarized and eleven of the remaining eighteen show at gap of at least 10 percentage points between the parties. By this measure, only seven Congressional seats were at risk of flipping from one party to the other in 2016—and none did.

Divisive issues abound and are intensified in a state as diverse and large as California. California voters could be self-selecting geographically into homogenous groups: beachgoers, mountain men, city slickers, farmers, chip designers. Or geography may be defining the issues that unite them: water rights, immigration, environmental issues, overcrowded cities, crime. Or, as Victor Hanson notes, the party differences align not as much as by geography as by income, housing prices, unemployment, and children’s test scores.

Regardless of party, there is little expectation for change in representation of Californians in the capitals. The two major parties are entrenched ideologically and geographically. Arnold Schwarzenegger was able to bridge the partisan gap for a few years, but it not clear that, presently, there is a leader or an issue (not even “dump Trump”) that can inspire California voters to debate the issues not the ideology.

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