What California voter trends could mean for the national election

By Zachary Green

Latinos make up the largest ethnic group in California, constituting 38 percent of the state's populace.

California also has one of the most significant immigrant populations in the U.S., as well as some of the most progressive policies towards undocumented immigrants. People living in the state without documentation can get driver's licenses and receive in-­state tuition for public universities, and undocumented children can qualify for the state's Medicaid system. But it wasn't always this way.

Over 20 years ago, California nearly adopted one of the most stringent immigration laws in the country. In 1994, with the support of then-Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, California voters passed Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that would have made undocumented residents ineligible for public benefits. The initiative passed with 60 percent of the vote, but Prop 187 had a much different impact on the state than its supporters intended.

Credit: Lisa Overton/NewsHour Weekend

The initiative never took effect because a federal judge placed a permanent injunction against it. The fight against the measure also mobilized the Latino community against the state's Republican Party, who were considered the main supporters of Prop 187. As the state's Latino demographic grew larger and larger, California went from a swing state to one of the most solidly Democratic states in the country.

Today, Democrats hold large majorities in both houses of the state legislature and no Republican holds statewide office.

Read the full transcript below:

HILLARY CLINTON: You know that this primary in California on June 7 is really important, because California is all about the future!

JEFF GREENFIELD: Does everything that happens in America happen first here in California? Maybe not everything, but a lot sure has–and does. The environmental movement, for example, got a huge jump start after a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969. Other examples date back more than a century, and a couple are highly relevant today.

From the progressive era more than a hundred years ago, to the student revolts of the 1960s, to the tax revolt of the 70s, California has often been an early warning system…just as it may be about a hot button political issue in this year's campaign.

DONALD TRUMP: When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best…They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Soon after those incendiary words about immigration…Trump vaulted into first place in the polls…a position he never yielded. But they echo an argument heard more than 20 years ago that helped win an election in California —and change the political contours of this state in ways that might be a portent for the nation.

Seeking re-election in 1994, Republican Governor Pete Wilson was facing a battered economy, and a state budget strained by a wave of immigrants—legal and not—crowding schools and hospitals.

He took a hard-line, anti-immigration stance — to deny almost all state services to undocumented immigrants — and embraced a state ballot measure, Proposition 187, that would have done just that.  The Prop 187 ad campaign was unsparing.

PROP 187 AD: They keep coming, two million illegal immigrants in California.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Wilson won re-election—and Prop 187 passed with 60 percent of the vote. But that election galvanized the Latino community and shifted the state's politics.

Latinos are now the state's largest ethnic group — more than 38 percent of Californians — and even with a lower turnout rate than White and Black voters, Latinos have an increasing share of the actual vote in California's elections — about 20 percent in the last Presidential election.

Manuel Pastor heads the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California.

MANUEL PASTOR: You know, it's important to realize that the demographic change in California between 1980 and 2000 is basically the demographic change the United States is going through between 2000 and 2050.

JEFF GREENFIELD: The U-S Census Bureau projects that by 2050, the Latino population will more than double…and become 26 percent of the country.

MANUEL PASTOR: A mobilization of the Latino community, a rush toward naturalization, and a rush toward civic engagement and voter engagement on the part of these newly naturalized citizens. That transformed the politics of California.

JEFF GREENFIELD: What happened in the last 22 years is that California effectively became a one-party state. The only exception being Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger —a strong proponent of immigration reform, by the way.

Today, every major statewide official in California is Democrat. The party holds huge majorities in the state legislature and Congressional delegation.  And California has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1992.

This Republican decline could spread if the party does not reverse course, according to longtime California Republican policy advisor Mike Madrid.

JEFF GREENFIELD: So you've seen in your adult life, as a Republican, California go from a competitive state to possibly with the exception of Schwarzenegger, is one of the bluest states there is.


JEFF GREENFIELD: To what extent do you think the immigration issue helped propel California in that direction?

MIKE MADRID: Oh, there's a direct correlation, there's no question about it. The mid-1990s were really a definitive time for the party– the Republican party of California.  And I think that's really a precursor, a preview of what's likely to come nationally.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Just as important, the state's view of immigrants has undergone a fundamental change. Dan Schnur, was Governor Wilson's chief spokesman and has spent his career in California Republican politics.  He now directs a think tank at USC.

DAN SCHNUR: A young Californian who went to school grew up in a neighborhood of people of a whole range of races and ethnicities, they don't think of undocumented immigration as a crisis, or even a problem.

JEFF GREENFIELD: The presumptive nominee of the Republican Party is not, does not appear to be sharing that view. So what does that portend for the party?

DAN SCHNUR: Well, there's a growing number of Republicans who do believe that the party has to change its approach on issues relating to immigration reform. That said, when pro-immigration reform Republicans talk, they tend to frame the issue not as an economic or a social or a moral imperative. They're being told it's a political necessity to help elect people to office who they'll never meet to serve a party with which they're becoming increasingly disenchanted.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Back when Proposition 187 passed, Angelica Salas… a child of undocumented Mexicans…decided to get involved in politics–she is now executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

ANGELICA SALAS: Fifty percent of the population of California is either an immigrant or a child of immigrants. So what the state really sees itself as an immigrant state, and that if we're going to advance collectively, not just for immigrants, but collectively, that we have to embrace immigrant integration.

ART TORRES: This is Cesar Chavez and that's me when I was 25 years old and Ted Kennedy.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Part of that integration can be seen in the corridors of power. When Art Torres was first elected to the legislature in 1974, he was one of the few Latinos in Sacramento.

ART TORRES: Then there was only three Latinos in the assembly and only two in the state senate. Now, we have close to 26. What's accounted for that is reapportionment and also increased voter registration in those districts which had a propensity — to have a larger Latino community.

JEFF GREENFIELD: This spring, volunteers from Salas's organization have been knocking on doors in those communities — urging legal immigrants to become naturalized citizens, and to vote. That's happening not just in California, but across the country.

Latinos nationwide are expected to come out to vote in record numbers this fall–over 13 million voters, by one estimate…up from 11.2 million in the last presidential election.

ANGELICA SALAS: What I see for the rest of–the nation is that we're going through this situation where certain politicians think that in order to win they need to attack us. They need to offend us. And I think that that is actually gonna backfire on them.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Between a shift in demographics and attitudes, undocumented immigrants have found a far friendlier climate in California than two decades ago.

Proposition 187 never went into effect; permanently blocked by a federal judge's injunction.

Later under a Democratic legislature, laws were passed to let undocumented immigrants obtain driver's licenses…pay discounted in-state tuition at state universities…and have their children's medical bills paid by Medicaid.

In state politics, the harsh anti-immigration rhetoric has all but disappeared.  But the prevailing view in California—that the immigration issue has been completely resolved—is not unanimous.

JOEL KOTKIN: Well, the big equation is economic.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Scholar and author Joel Kotkin argues that unskilled immigrants came to California during a manufacturing and construction boom that has since ebbed … and that the state's economy could end up paying the price for its large unemployed and undocumented population.

JOEL KOTKIN: The economic opportunities are rather poor. So what you have is, you have a population that's almost isolated, you know, with almost no way out for many of them. Maybe for their children, but maybe not for them.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Is this putting a very heavy burden on state resources?

JOEL KOTKIN: Well, it's a tremendous burden on the state. We're gonna start to see it move particularly in the area of housing, where there's a lot of pressure now to build subsidized, low-income housing for this same population. And when the economy weakens again as it will, I think they're gonna be very vulnerable.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Former state legislator Torres, who also chaired the state Democratic party for more than a decade, believes that California's large immigrant population benefits the state's economy… he argues that some of the conservative talking points on immigration are wrong.

For example, the number of undocumented immigrants in California has fallen 11 percent since 2010.  Torres says that's due in part to lower birth rates and a growing economy in Mexico, as well as an increase in U-S border enforcement.

ART TORRES: Those three factors, I think, have all contributed to a substantially lower– immigration, illegal immigration into the United States so that those people who call for a wall or other kinds of attitudes, it's not necessary.

JEFF GREENFIELD: If there's no consensus about the impact of immigration on California's long-term economy, there clearly is one about the political lessons California has for the nation…where the tough immigration line that worked in one election proved disastrous for the Republicans in what followed.

MIKE MADRID: Just as we were starting to see the Prop 187, Governor Wilson days disappear and, you know, barely visible in the rearview mirror, up comes this new national dynamic of the Trump candidacy and everything that comes with it– which is really branding– everything bad about the Republican party into the minds of a new young generation of Latinos, which are going to be the largest, fastest growing of the electorate.