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The Election Was Hard on California Democrats, Too

Eric McGhee, Daniel Krimm November 7, 2014

It’s pretty obvious that Democrats had a bad night nationally in last Tuesday’s election. They lost most of the close gubernatorial contests, lost control of a number of state legislative chambers, lost seats in the House of Representatives, and lost control of the U.S. Senate.

On the surface, it would appear that California stood against this tide. At the time of this writing, the Democrats have lost a few seats in the legislature and the congressional delegation, but they once again swept the statewide offices, from governor to secretary of state. Unlike the rest of the country, where the conversation is about which party controls the legislature, in California the conversation is about whether the Democrats will have a supermajority.

But scratch just beneath the surface, and it turns out California is not so different after all. A clean statewide sweep is not the best measure of performance, since those races can hinge more on candidate personalities or other idiosyncrasies than the lower-profile contests down-ballot do.

A better test is to compare Democratic performance in assembly and congressional races to races in the same districts two years ago. (State senate races can’t be compared this way because these districts were drawn differently this year.) The graph below shows the relationship between the Democratic vote share in this year’s assembly and congressional elections and the same two years ago, for races contested by both parties in both years (which means none of the same-party contests made possible by the new “top two” primary are included). The diagonal line marks no change: points above the line are districts where the Democrats did better, and points below are districts where they did worse. In the overwhelming majority of races, the Democratic candidate did worse this year. Moreover, this was true whether the Democrat won a large share of the vote in 2012 (farther to the right on the graph) or a small share (farther to the left).

Democrats in California’s congressional races also performed about as well as Democrats in other states. The second graph below compares California House races to others. The cloud of grey circles represents House races in other states, and as we can see, the California races fall well within it. This shows that Democrats in California did about as badly this year as Democratic candidates everywhere else.

It was a tough cycle for Democrats for a lot of reasons—their president is unpopular, the economy’s growth has not reached a broad swath of the electorate, and the president’s party is usually punished at least a little bit in midterm elections. But the story that California Democrats somehow avoided the fate of the rest of their party, at least for down-ballot races, doesn’t receive much support from the data.

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