By Steve Scott, political editor at the California Journal
When former California Gov. Ronald Reagan campaigned for president during the 1980s, his stump speeches were often laced with imagery designed to shore up the nation's flagging confidence. One catchphrase used to great effect by Reagan (and abused by GOP office-seekers ever since) centered around his description of America as "a shining city upon a hill."
The expression caught the imagination of a recession-addled country. But the image's success was, in a way, preordained, since it had already been tested with the world's largest focus group: the voters of California.
Officially, California is referred to as "The Golden State," but it's unofficial political nickname could easily be "The Dry Run State." A casual look at political trends over the last 50 years or so reveals that most either originated, or were launched into national prominence from "the Left Coast." California has been the national vanguard on issues ranging from abortion rights to restrictive immigration reform. The Lexington and Concord of the 1980s tax revolt was California's Prop. 13 in 1978. The very same November, 1996 California ballot that produced the nation's first medicinal marijuana law also produced the nation's first voter- imposed ban on affirmative action.
This March, California's trend-setting ways will, at long last, become a component of the presidential nominating process. Frustrated by its low-impact June primary date, California's Legislature moved it back to the first week in March. Worried that a state of 33 million could Bigfoot their influence in the primary process, several other states including New York, moved theirs as well, resulting in what Democratic presidential contender Bill Bradley is fond of referring to as "the first national primary."
When Bradley speaks of a national primary, though, he could just as easily be talking about the California primary itself. It isn't just that California is the nation's most populous state. This state is also the pencil-test for the demographic changes that will animate American politics in the coming century.
Before the "Aughts" are out, California will become a "majority- minority" state, with non-whites outnumbering whites. Between 30 and 40 percent of that nonwhite "majority" will be Latinos, another 10 percent will be Asian, meaning that California is working through the ethnicity issues of the 21st Century even as much of the South and East still fight the racial battles of the 19th Century. And though the California electorate still doesn't reflect the state's overall diversity, even that is changing. Latinos comprised only about eight percent of the electorate at the beginning of the 1990s. This year, they are expected to comprise about 15 percent.
California's credibility as a national template is not a matter of who is here, but also of where they live. The state's geographic and economic diversity means that any election is, in reality, many elections. California has its own farm belt in the Central Valley, its own "Bible Belt" in the northern and eastern portions of the state and several different urban cores and suburban corridors. A statewide candidate must appeal to minority and blue-collar voters in Los Angeles County, suburban moderates and conservatives in the "Inland Empire" of Riverside and San Bernardino, as well as the ideological bookends of the San Francisco Bay Area in the north and Orange County in the south. An "appeal to Republicans" means trying to win both social conservatives in the northeast and the Central Valley and the high-tech, enviro-friendly moderates of Silicon Valley and the Central Coast.
Candidates must also contend with an electorate increasingly disengaged from the process. The accumulated frustrations with governmental institutions seen in the rest of the country are mixed in with California-centered aggravations such as the lengthy and confusing list of propositions which litter the ballot every two years. The California news media, especially commercial television, all but ignores politics which, in the minds of most TV executives, just doesn't draw the ratings. Then there is the matter of the relative contentment in the electorate. California's economy is, if anything, outpacing the nation, thanks to its centrality to the high-tech boom. Contented voters are even less motivated to go to the polls.
This combination of ethnic and geographic diversity and a disengaged electorate makes California an ideal place for any national candidate to test their "electability" on a national scale. The perorations about grain subsidies in Iowa or heating- oil prices in New Hampshire give way to a focus on the global issues that affect everyone. Education, abortion-rights, gun control, taxes, the environment, public safety - all have a demonstrated potential to move votes in this state. But a candidate must also bring something more to the table in order to yank those lower-propensity voters from their torpor and give them a reason to go to the polls.
For the presidential candidates vying in the March primary - Vice President Al Gore and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley on the Democratic side, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain on the Republican side - the suspense is only enhanced by California's unusual bifurcated primary. Thanks to the rules of both major political parties, the votes in the state's open primary will be tallied in two ways. The overall vote will be coUnited in the open primary, and partisan voters will be coUnited separately to determine the delegate count in the state. Both Gore and Bush organized early in California and still maintain substantial leads in their respective party counts. But if McCain's "Straight Talk Express" is still roaring down the track after South Carolina, some have suggested the possibility that he might finish ahead of the Texas governor in the beauty contest but bow to the better-organized Bush in the delegate vote.
Neither political party can claim a "lock" on California, but it's fair to say that, for now, the mountain is tougher to climb for the Republicans. With the exception of the GOP's banner year of 1994, the party has been steadily losing ground in the state. When Texas Gov. George W. Bush was leading Vice President Al Gore by double-digits in the rest of the country, he was barely even here. The most recent registration report shows that, for the first time in anyone's memory, Orange County has more registered Democrats than registered Republicans.
There are any number of factors which have contributed to the GOP's California malaise. Some sprawl-sickened suburbanites have simply fled the state. Others have been turned off by what is perceived to be an especially judgmental brand of social conservatism presented both by the national GOP and high-profile statewide candidates like former Attorney General Dan Lungren, who lost the governorship to then-Lt. Gov. Gray Davis by 20 points.
The trend which, arguably, worries the GOP the most, however, is its problems with the only voting bloc which is demonstrably growing - Latinos. During his 1994 reelection campaign, then-Gov. Pete Wilson - a Republican - actively backed Prop. 187, an initiative aimed at restricting immigration. Wilson's infamous television commercials with grainy security-camera footage of illegal immigrants running across the border not only alienated Latinos, but energized them to vote. In 1996 and 1998, they demonstrated their muscle not only with statewide victories but also with increased Latino representation in the California Legislature.
The GOP's problems in California have many of the state's Democrats believing they are lined up for another big year. Not only are they confident that U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein will be comfortably reelected, national party poo-bahs believe four of the six congressional seats the Democrats will need to pick up in order to reclaim control of the House of Representatives can be gotten right here in California. The seats in question include that of Rep. James Rogan, who was one of the House managers in Pres. Bill Clinton's impeachment trial; and that of Rep. Tom Campbell, the iconoclastic moderate who is vacating his seat for a U.S. Senate run. Seats in San Diego and Long Beach are also in play.
All in all, it adds up to one of the more intriguing elections in many decades in California, and the sort of race which could further enhance California's status as the nation's political test market.