By Carl Luna and Joe "Mac" McKenzie of San Diego Mesa College
As the November political season draws closer, the only serious rumbling going on in Southern California these days is out in the desert.
With no elections of particular political consequence this fall, there are no anticipated political tremblers on the horizon. In the greater Los Angeles and San Diego areas, political junkies have to make do these days handicapping the usually collection of elections for school boards and school bonds. The big elections, for Mayor of San Diego, state ballot propositions, the state and national Legislatures and, of course, the Big One, await the new year. Yet, while Southern Californians await the "big ones"--next year's spring primaries and fall general elections, the region continues a pro-Democratic demographic and political shift of seismic proportions. By next spring and fall, this may result in a political earthquake that will shatter Republican political ambitions from Hollywood Boulevard to Pennsylvania Avenue.
Southern California, the land that launched the conservative revolution of the 1970s, continues its decade-long shift leftwards. According to recent Field's Polls; Californians have a favorable view of the Democratic Party; by a 58% to 34% margin. An underlying reason why the Democratic Party is viewed more favorably than the GOP is because people see the former as being more interested in the problems that concern them most, by a 52% to 31% margin. Views of the Republican Party are more negative (49%) than positive (43%). The Democratic Party holds the largest edge over the GOP in favorability among strong liberals (+78), black/African Americans (+59), moderate liberals (+49), Latino's (+29) and women (+20). Women and Latinos are rapidly becoming the new California King makers, replacing the middle class white males. This is reflected in elections. The state hasn't elected a Republican senator since Pete Wilson's self appointed replacement was defeated by Dianne Feinstein in 1992. Meanwhile, there have been 100% increases in the numbers of both in women and Latino state senators, both overwhelmingly Democrats.
Underscoring this trend, Republican voter groups are declining and Democratic voter groups are increasing in real numbers. Between 1994 and 1998, the number of self-identified conservatives declined 7% and Protestant/Christians declined 4% while the number of political moderates (+5%) and Latinos (+3%) increased. By any reckoning, the Republican Party has had some serious damage control to do among Latino voters in the wake of the four to one split in favor of Democrats in last fall's election. Yet California Republicans have done nothing to heal the damage Davis & Company did to them in the '98 election, thereby squandering what ever chances they had to rebuild bridges blown up by former Governor Pete Wilson's politically unwise strategy of demonizing the fastest growing portion of the California electorate.
The traditional advantage of Republicans has been their far higher voter turnout rate. In 1998, white non-Hispanics accoUnited for 53% of population, but were 74% of voters; Latinos, Blacks and Asians were 47% of population, but 26% of voters in 1998. Out of more than 20.8 million California citizen eligible adults, just 8.6 million voted in l998 for a participation rate of 41%. More Democrats than Republicans do not vote, which has helped Republicans mask the pro-Democrat shift in real support. The proportion of Californians who follows what's going on in government and public affairs most of the time has declined sharply over the past 16 years from 50% in 1983 to 40% today. Double-digit declines have occurred among those with less than a post graduate education, adults under age 50, Latinos and black African Americans. Yet these portents do not loom as hopefully for Republicans as they did in years past.
Even in the remaining heart of Goldwater (never mind Reagan) country, Orange and San Diego County, portents bode ill for the GOP. Democrat Los Angles County has seen voter turnout decline 4% between 1994 and 1998. Republican Orange Country has seen turnout drop by more than 7% during the same period. Meanwhile, Democratic dominance in Sacramento has elevated the profile and power of San Diego Democratic office holders, giving them greater political clout . This increased Democratic panache could undermine the 4:1 Republican congressional majority in the county. Local Congressman Brian Bilbray barely defeated a lesbian democratic rival against the backdrop of the impeachment debacle last year. His odds in the anticipated matchup against popular Democratic state assembly woman Susan Davis are not as favorable as one would expect for a second term incumbent. With a growing Latino population of 26%, San Diego is fast losing its white-Republican character, which further undermines the hopes of Republican candidates like Bilbray.
Here is a simple formula. No one since JFK has become President without winning California. You can't win California without winning southern California. Forty-four states have fewer people than L.A. County alone! Ronald Reagan launched his revolution here with cold war rhetoric that doesn't matter anymore appealing to a white dominated electorate that doesn't exist anymore. His radical economic message has become the new orthodoxy accepted by almost all serious politicians, making the old issues of Republican fiscal responsibly vs. Democratic high taxing and free spending moot.
Republican's simply cannot win without winning in Southern California, and that means they must win at least one third of the Latino vote. The same applies increasingly to Congressional and State elections. George W. is currently the California GOP's Great White Hope. Bush received almost 1/2 the Latino vote in Texas running on issues like raising school standards. Can he move the Latino vote in Southern California from 1/4 to 1/3 on his issues? That is 2000 election's billion-dollar question.
The most powerful political fault line in Southern California politics is the economy. The electorate is currently economically contented; 70% think the State is in economic good times. Yet the voters are increasingly wary; only 27% think it will get better, underscoring a growing level of economic anxiety. The Republican's best hope in Southern California and the state as a whole may lie in recession developing between now and next year's elections. A recession causes voter slippage in the dominant party, which now is the Democratic Party. A recession in State Government would mean tighter budgets and tighter budgets in the voters' mind means Republicans. Barring such an economic shock, however, Republican chances to reverse in 2000 the disaster they suffered in 1998 looks as shaky as the California landscape has in recent weeks.