Capitol Alert

How California became a very blue state

Students from several Los Angeles high schools rally on the steps of City Hall on Nov. 14 after walking out of classes to protest the presidential election of Donald Trump. Los Angeles County, with more than a quarter of the state’s population, gave heavy support to Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton.
Students from several Los Angeles high schools rally on the steps of City Hall on Nov. 14 after walking out of classes to protest the presidential election of Donald Trump. Los Angeles County, with more than a quarter of the state’s population, gave heavy support to Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton. The Associated Press

Demography, it’s been said, is destiny – and the outcome of California’s election this month proves it again.

California’s political evolution over the last four decades, from a mostly red state to a purple state and finally to a very blue state, corresponds to its powerful demographic trends, driven largely by equally powerful economic forces.

During that period – spanning Jerry Brown’s two governorships and four others in between – the state’s economy moved from industrialism to a post-industrial mélange of technology, trade and services.

Those changes, plus California’s location on the Pacific Rim and adjacent to Mexico, spurred a massive influx of immigrants from other nations and a new baby boom that increased its population by more than 75 percent. Once overwhelmingly white, California became overwhelmingly nonwhite, with Latinos now the largest single ethnic group.

But there’s more to California’s demographic evolution than simple ethnicity. Its reputation for social tolerance and upward mobility also made the state a magnet – or a haven – for those of all ethnicities, genders and cultural inclinations seeking new beginnings.

Meanwhile, the decline of its industrial economy – exemplified by the collapse of Southern California’s aerospace industry – plus high living expenses hollowed out its middle class. The state now loses more people to other states, Texas particularly, than it gains from domestic migration.

The changes are visible almost everywhere in California, but most dramatically in Los Angeles County, home to more than a quarter of the state’s population.

Los Angeles, once neutral in highly contested statewide elections, shifted to the left in the 1990s as hundreds of thousands of displaced aerospace workers and their families sought employment elsewhere for their skills and Southern California became the destination of choice for the powerful flow of immigrants, legal and illegal.

The dramatic political change in the huge county, institutionalized by an immigrant-centered union movement, tilted the entire state, as a deep dive into political history demonstrates. And it was accompanied by an intensified leftward shift in the already liberal San Francisco Bay Area, including suburbs that had traditionally voted Republican, and other coastal regions.

The state’s Republican Party, meanwhile, failed miserably to adjust to the new demographics. It continued to trumpet themes, such as strident resistance to the undocumented immigrants that had become integral to the post-industrial economy, that alienated not only Latinos and other nonwhite communities but younger, well-educated white Californians as well.

California’s voting outcomes this month, so starkly contrasting with national trends, directly reflected social currents of the past four decades. Democrats from Hillary Clinton down swept the state, and voters passed several liberal ballot measures, including taxes on the rich and legalizing recreational marijuana.

It was a high-turnout election, and an exit poll of voters by the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Times found that just 56 percent were white, down about 20 points from just a few elections ago. Latinos had climbed to 24 percent, twice what they were just a few elections ago, and voters of every ethnic group favored Clinton over Donald Trump.

The die has been cast. Demography is, indeed, political destiny.

  Comments