How California changed from being a swing state for Republican politicians to becoming a consistent Democratic Party supporter.
By James Molnar
As we begin Election Day, there is little doubt about which way California in the Electoral College is going to vote. Known widely for being one of the most liberal places in the world, the Golden State voted strongly in favor of Hillary Clinton in 2016 and has not elected a Republican in a statewide election since 2006.
What many people don’t know, however, is that California’s identity as a blue state is a relatively new tradition. For many years, California was a reliable Republican stronghold. In fact, from 1952 to 1988, the state voted for a Republican in every single presidential election, except for one (1964). Starting in 1992, the state changed in an almost piecewise fashion, and has voted Democrat ever since. What caused this dramatic change?
In the 1990s, California’s immigrant population grew by 37% or 2.4 million people. The state now has more immigrants than any other. Studies indicate that these immigrants generally have a leftwing preference. A poll by Pew Research found that immigrants in California are about twice as likely to lean Democrat than Republican. In addition, the immigrants of California are mostly here legally and 52% are naturalized citizens, meaning that they can vote (Public Policy Institute of California).
It is not only an influx of people which has recalibrated California’s demographics in recent years, but also a considerable exodus of members of the working class. According to the Sacramento Bee, California experienced a net loss of about 800,000 people living near the poverty line to other states. The plurality of these people moved over to Texas, a longtime red state. The significance of this emigration is that the working class, particularly the white working class, are a key Republican demographic. A Pew Research poll found that 64% of whites without a college degree voted for Trump in 2016.
This leftward shift is not present equally in the whole of California but is rather concentrated in the coastal areas. The Bay Area especially votes overwhelmingly for the Democrats. Alameda, Santa Clara, and our own Contra Costa counties are among the most liberal in the state. These blue areas tend to be more ethnically diverse, with whites accounting for a minority of the population.
Much of the interior, especially the far north, of California, meanwhile, remains staunchly red. This includes counties such as Modoc, Lassen, and Shasta, which all voted Republican in the last presidential election. These counties have not been as affected by immigration as much of the state and whites still comprise around 80% of the population, compared to the California average of 37%. Though the land area of the state is split roughly evenly between the two parties, it is the much greater population density of the blue areas which results in their electoral dominance.
It is plain that racial and economic demographics have played a central role in the political transformation of California. In the state, they have swung far enough in one direction, so as to render the electoral result a foregone conclusion. In the country as a whole, however, the balance of these demographic factions will be pivotal in determining the outcome of one of the most contentious elections in U.S history.
Melanie Moyer '22,