The 2012 elections may prove to be a turning point in California politics one that has been many years in the making as the political might of the expanding ethnic voter population fully exerted itself in this year's statewide elections.
According to the network exit polls, Latinos, Asian Americans and African Americans collectively made up about 40 percent of the state's voters in this election, roughly equivalent to their share of the state's overall registered voter population. This means that turnout among the state's ethnic voters was about equal to the turnout of their white non-Hispanic counterparts, a first in California election politics.
The preliminary vote counts have President Barack Obama carrying California by about 20 percentage points, despite white non-Hispanics supporting Mitt Romney by eight points, a reversal from four years ago when they preferred Obama over John McCain by six points. Obama was supported by overwhelming margins among the state ethnic voters, meaning his entire victory margin here was due to their turnout and support.
The exit polls showed the president winning among California's Latinos 72 percent to 27 percent, Asian Americans 79 percent to 21 percent and African Americans 96 percent to 3 percent.
While not as extreme, the same pattern was seen in the vote on Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown's tax increase initiative. It leads in the preliminary returns by about eight points. While white non-Hispanics divided their votes evenly, ethnic voters collectively supported it by 20 points, again giving it its entire margin of victory.
When I first began polling at Field in the late 1970s, the influence of ethnic voters on California election outcomes was less, and top-of-the-ticket races were typically more competitive affairs, with each party winning their share of the elections. For example, in the 16 elections for president, U.S. Senate and governor between 1978 and 1994, Republican candidates won nine times, while Democrats won seven times.
The 1994 election marked a turning point, as ethnic voter participation began its ascent. What appeared to stimulate this surge was the passage of the highly divisive illegal immigration initiative, Proposition 187, which had the full support and backing of the Republican Party and of Gov. Pete Wilson, who was running for re-election that year.
A comparison of Field Poll estimates of the composition of the state's registered voters in 1994 to what it is today illustrates the dramatic effect that that the growth in ethnic voters has had on the electorate over the past 18 years.
In 1994 there were 14.7 million registered voters in California. Today there are 18.2 million voters. Of the 3.5 million voter increase over this period, about 3 million, or nearly 90 percent of it, came from Latino and Asian American voters.
As this transformation in the state's electorate was occurring, California's Latino and Asian American voters were becoming more supportive of Democratic candidates. In the 1980s and early 1990s, it was not unusual for Republicans statewide to win more than 40 percent of their support.
Ronald Reagan did it in his re-election run for president in 1984. George Deukmejian also did so in his re-election bid for governor in 1986, as did Wilson in his first-term election as governor in 1990. Compare that to this year's presidential election where, Latino and Asian American support for Romney was about half this level.
It is no coincidence that since 1994 California has changed from a competitive purple state in presidential politics to one of the nation's bluest of blue states, with the Democratic ticket winning the last four presidential elections by double-digit margins, the last two by 20 points or more.
Findings from recent multi-ethnic Field Polls conducted in six languages illuminate the policy positions held by ethnic voters that are pushing them more to the Democratic column.
The first relates to what should be done about the approximately 2.5 million illegal or undocumented immigrants currently living in California.
Large majorities of the state's ethnic voters, including 85 percent of Latinos, view this as a salient issue and support government policies that would provide these residents with a path to citizenship.
While the issue of immigration usually comes to mind first in discussion about ethnic voters, if I had to cite one area that best explains why ethnic voter support for Democratic candidates is growing, it would relate to their view of the role of government.
The network exit poll showed California's white non-Hispanics evenly divided about whether the government should do more to solve the nation's problems or whether it was doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals. By contrast, ethnic voters believed that government should be doing more nearly 2 to 1.
A concrete example of this is how ethnic voters here view the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obama-care. Since its passage in 2010, Field Polls have shown Californians consistently supporting the law by double-digit margins. Whereas white non-Hispanics are evenly divided, the law is strongly supported by ethnic voters. A main factor behind this support is their belief that the law will benefit them and their families, whereas whites are skeptical.
Other findings from the multi-ethnic Field Polls provide additional clues as to why ethnic voters are increasingly migrating to the Democratic Party.
For example, we found a huge generational divide between the opinions of younger ethnic voters compared to their elders on several social issues.
While majorities of older ethnic voters oppose gay marriage and marijuana legalization, majorities of the state's ethnic voters under 35 support both.
This can be viewed as a continuation of America's long tradition of becoming a melting pot for immigrants, especially when it comes to their sons and daughters. However, it undercuts the notion that on most social issues ethnic voters may be more in sync with the traditional values and beliefs of the Republican Party.
This bodes poorly for the long-term electoral fortunes of the Republican Party in the state, since the demographic changes now unfolding in the California electorate will continue well into the foreseeable future. Demography marches on.
As GOP voter registration in the state now dips below 30 percent, and we witness an election in which the Republican presidential candidate is preferred among white non-Hispanic voters by eight points, but loses the election statewide by 20, it's probably time to begin listening more attentively to the views of the state's fast-growing ethnic population.