Whatever Happened to California Republicans?

In 1962, when Pat Brown beat Nixon, the New Deal coalition of white workers in the big urban areas, white populists in the Central Valley, and inner city minorities was still intact. But in 1966, Pat Brown’s losses among three Democratic white populist voting streams -- the Central Valley, and white worker neighborhoods in both Northern and Southern California -- were startling, dropping 20 points in the Valley and among Bay Area workers. The biggest changes occurred in the white working class precincts of L.A. County: in the blue-collar neighborhoods, he went from a 32-point lead against Knowland in 1958 to a 22-point loss to Reagan in 1966. That’s a net swing of over 50 points, and it’s what the political scientists call “realignment.”

These patterns carried over into 1968 and cost Democratic presidential nominee Hubert H. Humphrey dearly: he lost the white working class, so he couldn’t carry the Golden State. California’s 40 electoral votes provided Richard Nixon with his majority in the Electoral College.

(For a fuller explanation of these trends, see California After Arnold, Chapter 4).

In retrospect, the 1966 results set up a pattern that would last for a generation, as “Reagan Democrats” in the suburbs and Central Valley would keep California Republican for president six straight times from 1968 to 1988. The Republicans also held the governorship for a majority of these years. From Reagan’s election as governor in 1966 to Pete Wilson’s inaugural in 1991, California Republicans won 14 of 21 elections for president, governor, and U.S. senator.

Entering the 1990s, California Republicans seemed to have everything going for them: the first George Bush was a reasonably popular president, the state had gained a post-war record seven House seats after the 1990 Census, and Pete Wilson had narrowly turned back a spirited challenge from Dianne Feinstein in the 1990 gubernatorial race.

But history came to the rescue of California’s Democrats in 1992. The success of Presidents Reagan and Bush in winning the Cold War meant that defense spending would be reduced sharply. During the height of the defense spending boom in the 1980s, The Almanac of American Politics reported that California received 25% of Pentagon contracts (more than twice its population share). These were largely well-paying jobs that caused the suburban middle class to boom in Southern California, thus combining nationalism with economic self-interest. As Kevin Phillips wrote, Southern Californians “logically tend to support patriotism, Pentagon, and paycheck.” The U.S. victory in the Cold War had the unintended consequence of throwing nearly a million Southern Californians out of work in a state the first George Bush had won by barely 350,000 votes in 1988. The result was that many Reagan Democrats began to return to their roots.

President Bush barely beat Dukakis by 51-48% here in 1988. The Reagan coalition of white suburbanites, rural voters, white blue-collar Democrats, and upwardly mobile New Minorities (Asians and Hispanics) may have been completely destroyed in 1992 as Bush suffered huge defections from white workers, Asians, and especially white suburbanites. The fact that Republicans under Bush in Washington and Wilson in Sacramento were in charge when the roof fell also did maximum damage.

Then came the 1992 watershed election that began a new era: the Clinton-Feinstein-Boxer-Obama Years. From 1992 until 2012, Democrats presidential nominees have carried the state six consecutive times by million-vote-plus margins, while Feinstein and Boxer have remained undefeated in the Senate, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unique bipartisan candidacy has been the only successful GOP effort since 1995.

That was the "bad luck" part of the GOP decline. Much more lasting damage to California Republicans was done by political mistakes and poor candidate choices.