By Daniel Weintraub
It’s no secret that California’s population has been getting more diverse for decades. More recently, the composition of the state’s electorate has begun to mirror the population. But the people who actually showed up and voted on Election Day have remained whiter, and older, than the pool of registered voters.
It appears that for the first time, California Latinos, Asian-Americans and blacks voted last month in numbers roughly equivalent to their share of registered voters. About 40 percent of California’s electorate is now non-white. And ethnic voters made up about 40 percent of those who mailed in their ballots or went to the polls Nov. 6.
This should be a wake-up call to Republicans, here and across the country.
While white voters in California still lean conservative and will support Republican candidates, ethnic voters are overwhelmingly Democrats or independents who sympathize with that party. If Republicans can no longer count on large numbers of those voters to stay home on election day, the party is going to have to appeal to them — or risk permanent irrelevance.
The trend lines are clear. In 1994, white, non-hispanic voters made up 73 percent of the electorate, according to the independent Field Poll. Latinos were 15 percent, blacks 6 percent and Asian-Americans 5 percent. But of the 3.5 million net new voters since then, only 250,000 were white. More than 8 out of every 10 new voters has been an ethnic minority.
As a result, the state’s electorate is now just 60 percent white, and it is 23 percent Latino, 10 percent Asian-American and 6 percent black.
This would not matter so much if Latinos and Asian-Americans, the two fastest growing groups, were still splitting their votes between the parties as they once did. But at the same time that then number of minority voters has been growing, they have also been tilting more and more toward the Democrats.
Ronald Reagan, running for re-election as president, and Republican Govs. George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson all got more than 40 percent of the Latino and Asian votes between 1984 and 1990, according to exit polls.
Then Wilson made illegal immigrants scapegoats for a sluggish economy, and Latinos – and to a lesser extent Asian-Americans — began fleeing to the Democrats. The more recent shift of Asian-Americans was probably a result of that ethnic group becoming more diverse itself, with poor Southeast Asian refugees and their children adding to a population of older immigrants who had been more conservative.
That’s why last month, Mitt Romney managed to win the white vote in California by 8 percentage points while losing the state in a landslide, by 22 points. President Obama won among Latinos by 45 points, Asian-Americans by 58 points and African Americans by 93 points, according to the exit poll.
Ethnic voters were also decisive in the approval of Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to raise income and sales taxes to help balance the budget. White voters were evenly split on the measure but minorities approved it by 20 points, giving it the margin it needed for victory.
“Never before have we seen the ethnic voters flex their political muscle as they did in this cycle,” said Mark DiCamillo, the Field Poll director and a longtime student of California politics. “The Republican Party, if they’re intending to be competitive on a statewide basis, they can’t ignore them any longer. They’re just too big a force.”
What does that mean? Some Republican leaders have said that the party simply needs to be more moderate on immigration – endorsing some sort of amnesty, for example – and then use the party’s conservative social issues agenda to appeal to minorities, who in the past have been less likely than whites to support things like gay marriage and abortion.
But DiCamillo’s polls suggest that this strategy probably won’t work. Younger minorities, who are increasingly becoming the dominant force in the electorate, are just as socially liberal as their white counterparts in California.
“There is a huge generation gap,” he said. “I don’t think it’s that unusual for that to happen in America. As sons and daughters of immigrants get raised here, they take on the culture of their cohort. It’s the melting pot at work.”
That’s a cruel irony for the Republicans. Many in the party have groused about the supposed lack of assimilation into the American culture among immigrants from Latin America. But it could turn out that the assimilation of those immigrants is exactly what makes them more difficult for Republicans to reach.
But all is not lost for the Republicans, yet. While California minorities tend to favor a more assertive government than whites, immigrants also have a more entrepreneurial bent, and this could be the Republicans’ best shot. If the party frames itself as the agent of economic opportunity rather than the protector of the privileged, it might be able to make some headway.
Another possible opening: education. If the question is school funding, Republicans will usually lose to the Democrats, even though the party has tended to favor schools over social programs when the two priorities compete for scarce dollars. But on the question of parental empowerment and school accountability, the Democrats’ ties to the teachers unions could give Republicans a chance to compete by offering policies that appeal to immigrants hoping their kids get a better education than they did.
In the end, though, the list of specific policy positions might not matter as much as the perception that the Democratic Party is inclusive while the Republicans are dominated by aging white males who are hostile to minorities.
Accurate or not, that’s the common view of the parties. Until that changes, Republican influence will continue to dwindle in California. And since California is a leading indicator of the nation’s demography, what happens to the parties here is probably a pretty decent predictor of where the rest of the country is headed.
Daniel Weintraub has covered California public policy for 25 years. He is editor of the California Health Report at www.healthycal.org