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Balance of Power Shifting in State

By Mark Baldassare, senior fellow, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the Sacramento Bee on March 19, 2000

The first returns are now in, and the voting trends tell us a lot about what we can expect from California's electorate in the new century. Judging from the early results, we could be in for a bumpy ride.

The March 7 primary offers fresh evidence that powerful undercurrents are at work - population growth, racial and ethnic change, increasing regional diversity, and voter distrust - in shaping the state's elections and public policies.

California's biggest challenge is taking steps now to accommodate the population growth that lies ahead. The state's population is expected to rise from 34 million to over 50 million by 2030, which adds up to a bigger increase than in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s combined.

To get ready for this growth both state and local governments will need to ask voters for their permission to dedicate more money to building new schools and expanding the roads, parks, and water systems. State estimates place the dollar amount for capital spending at over $90 billion for the next 10 years alone.

California voters sent a clear message about how they will respond to their governments' requests for money to pay for public works projects. They passed Propositions 12, 13, and 14 by wide margins, indicating they are comfortable with state bonds that will give billions of dollars in new funds to pay for parks, water, and libraries. The principal and interest payments on these state bonds will be paid out of the state's general fund

But voters narrowly rejected Proposition 26, showing a reluctance to ease the vote restrictions on passing local school bonds since this would raise their local property taxes. The loss of Proposition 26 will have lasting political impacts, as it signals the fact that the Proposition 13 tax revolt is alive and well in California. State elected officials will be very cautious about asking the voters to raise their taxes to pay for schools and to fund the necessary public works projects. The course has now been set. California will prepare for growth by going on a spending spree with borrowed money.

The racial and ethnic change that is now underway is altering the balance of political power. California will become a majority-minority state sometime this year, meaning that non-Hispanic whites will make up less than half of the population. Latinos will outnumber all other racial and ethnic groups by 2020, and then will make up nearly half the state's population by 2040. Latinos were 13 percent of all voters in this primary, but it is their future potential that makes Latinos the voter group to watch in 2000.

Latino voting trends in the primary tell us that this group will be shaking up the political establishment as their numbers grow. They overwhelmingly voted for Vice President Al Gore over Texas Governor George Bush (56 percent to 18 percent) in the open presidential primary, according to the exit polls. The tilt toward a Democratic candidate is not surprising, since new Latino voters have registered as Democrats, but it adds to the reasons why GOP candidates face an uphill battle here in statewide elections.

Latino voting has influence beyond partisan races. Latinos are affecting the state initiatives because their political profile leans to the left on fiscal issues and to the right on social issues. For instance, Proposition 26 had the support of Latinos but not the non-Hispanic whites (61 percent to 48 percent). A larger Latino turnout could have turned the narrow loss of Proposition 26 into a victory, indicating that this is a voter group that will play an important role in passing future tax measures. On the other hand, Proposition 22, the ban on gay marriages, was favored by Latinos but not by Democrats (65 percent to 43 percent). Latinos could provide a boost for socially conservative initiatives as their voting base expands.

The March primary shows that regional diversity is taking on more political significance. In the past, state elections have been firmly in the hands of Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, since most voters lived in those urban coastal areas. Today and in the future, the fastest growing regions are the Central Valley and the Southern California megasuburbs outside of Los Angeles, including Orange County, San Diego, and the Inland Empire that includes San Bernardino and Riverside. These up-and-coming regions are destined to have a more decisive role in statewide elections and shift politics in a conservative direction.

A regional divide was at work in the open presidential primary. Gore won over Bush in the Democratic strongholds of Los Angeles County (45 percent to 23 percent) and the San Francisco Bay area (40 percent to 19 percent). However, Bush outpolled Gore in the conservative-leaning areas of the Central Valley (37 percent to 29 percent) and the Southern California megasuburbs (35 percent to 27 percent). In the fall contest, the Democrats should do well in the urban coastal region. Thus, the Republicans will have to counter with stronger showings in the Central Valley and Southern California megasuburbs to swing the election in their favor.

Regional differences are also evident in voting on state initiatives. Proposition 22, the ban on gay marriage, won by a landslide margin in the Central Valley and lost in the San Francisco Bay Area (72 percent to 48 percent). Proposition 26, the effort to ease to vote requirements for passing local school bonds, won easily in the San Francisco Bay Area and lost in the Central Valley (55 percent to 47 percent). In a similar fashion, the Southern California megasuburbs voted more conservatively than Los Angeles. How will the state avoid policy gridlock, when regions with very different politics are nearing political parity?

Lastly, the powerful forces of voter distrust were at work in the March 7 primary. This was most evident in the public enthusiasm generated by the presidential run of U.S. Senator John McCain. The Californians that joined his crusade were a diverse coalition of voters that spanned the generations and crossed party lines. The McCain voters were linked by their distrust of government and the political establishment.

While McCain's support was not enough to win the Republican nomination, the fact is that one in four Californians voted for him. If Bush has any chance at all of winning in California, he will have to find a way back to his original idea of running as a "Washington outsider." Gore faces the unenviable task of reinventing himself as a government reformer. In the end, whoever appeals to the distrustful voters who supported McCain will win in California and, most likely, go on to be the next president.

The most encouraging news from the first election of the new century is that California voters were politically engaged. Our Public Policy Institute of California statewide surveys showed an unusually high level of interest in the presidential primary. The voter turnout on March 7 set a record. It is critical to the state's future for voters to stay involved. California faces many important policy decisions in the decades ahead, and voters will be asked to make thoughtful decisions on a wide range of complicated issues.


California in the New Millennium: The Changing Social and Political Landscape

Statewide Survey Series