California Forum

Mindy Romero: California’s political tipping point

Dramatic growth in California’s nonwhite population will almost certainly produce a political shake-up in the state. Some fear it, many will fight it, and even more will embrace it. But change is inevitable. The question is: How will the state’s political structures and residents respond?

Last March, Latinos became the plurality in California. At 39 percent, they now edge out the state’s white non-Hispanic population, according to the California Department of Finance.

By 2040, California’s nonwhite populations combined will constitute nearly 70 percent of the state’s residents. Latinos alone will drive much of this growth, reaching 45 percent of the population compared to whites’ 32 percent. The proportion of Asian Americans will increase slightly to a little over 13 percent, while African Americans will remain near 5 percent.

Population change will also bring a significant increase in the proportion of residents of color eligible to vote in California. In November 2012, non-Hispanic whites still made up a majority of those eligible to vote in the state – 51 percent. Latinos constituted 26 percent of the state’s eligible voters, largely due to lower citizenship rates than whites. But by the 2016 general election, whites are projected to fall to 49 percent of California’s eligible voters. For the first time, California will have a majority-minority of eligible voters.

Over the next 30 years, the state will gain 8.3 million residents eligible to vote – 8 million of whom will be nonwhite.

At the California Civic Engagement Project of the UC Davis Center for Regional Change, our research shows that if their current low voter turnout rates remain stable, Latinos and Asian Americans combined will reach 45 percent of California’s eligible voters who actually cast a ballot in the 2040 general election. They will be more than 50 percent in many of the state’s counties, given projected population growth.

This is a dramatic shift considering that in the 2000 election, whites made up 70 percent of all those who voted in California.

So what does all of this mean for our political landscape? Simply put, Democrats are likely to gain significantly. Nonwhites in California, particularly women of color, overwhelmingly identify as Democrat. If party affiliations remain stable, then the makeup of the electorate will turn even more Democratic.

The political impact of growing proportions of nonwhites in California will be felt in the state’s local and legislative districts and in the state’s contribution to the battle for party control of Congress.

While population shifts will be felt everywhere in California, they will be larger in the San Joaquin Valley and the Los Angeles regions. By 2040, Latinos will make up 49 percent of the San Joaquin Valley’s eligible voter population. Many of our most competitive electoral districts are currently in these regions, including four of the state’s six hotly contested congressional districts – the 21st, 7th, 26th and 36th. As populations change, it will get increasingly more difficult for Republicans to compete in these districts.

In many other areas of the state, the Latino and Asian American populations combined will reach a political tipping point, likely changing some districts from Republican to Democrat.

A wild card in all of this is how parties will respond to and recruit California’s new eligible voters. In order to have a fighting chance in the state’s new landscape, Republicans must change the current narrative that links Democrats and Latinos.

Meanwhile, over the past decade, Democrats have been losing ground with Latino voters. Latino voters registering as Democrat declined 7 percentage points from 2002 to 2012, while Latino Republican registration declined only slightly. Like the rest of the electorate, Latinos are increasingly registering with no party affiliation – up over 7 percentage points since 2002.

But sometimes parties don’t pursue new voters because they can bring political uncertainty. New party voters can end up supporting candidates other than those officially backed by the party. Some argue this is why the California Democratic Party hasn’t pursued the Latino vote aggressively or consistently despite the large numbers of Latinos eligible to vote.

As the political landscape in California shifts over time, policy changes will follow. Some California residents will politically push back against what they perceive as a threat to their own interests and way of life. If campaigns capitalize on these defensive stands, some electoral districts could see political changes delayed.

But a key obstacle to the electoral representation of residents of color in California is their much lower voter turnout rates compared to whites.

An increasing share of California’s population will mean a greater voice in the state’s political process, but it does not automatically ensure the state will have a representative democracy. If disparities in eligible voter turnout rates endure, then Latinos, Asian Americans and African Americans will all continue to hold a share of California’s vote that is not commensurate with their proportions of the state’s eligible voting population.

Our political institutions will need to create new and aggressive strategies to reach the state’s growing segments of nonwhite voters. If these new potential voters aren’t mobilized to cast ballots, then the state’s voting electorate will become even less representative of its residents.