With the stunning victory of Donald Trump in the presidential election, it is easy to overlook the significance of the California vote. The political experience here was starkly different from the US in ways that went beyond our normal “blue state” election performance. I’m going to focus on election and polling trends that caught my attention—including citizen engagement, presidential preference, the state ballot measures, the role of government, and voter turnout. My colleague Eric McGhee has an excellent analysis of the top-two legislative races in another PPIC blog post. I’ll close with a look toward next year and the 2018 California election in light of the changing political landscape in California and the US.
Citizen engagement. The California voter rolls grew by 2.15 million in 2016 to reach a historic high of 19.4 million before the November 8 election. According to the California Secretary of State, the voter registration surge was largely a Democratic Party phenomenon, resulting in a 19-point gap between the Democrats and Republicans (45% to 26%)—the largest since 1976. Clearly, online registration and social media brought in new voters. But Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump shaped those voters’ party choices. One of the Republican candidate’s main messages—on immigration—simply did not resonate here. The 2016 PPIC Statewide Surveys consistently found that most Californians viewed immigrants as a benefit, favored a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and opposed building a wall on the US–Mexico border.
Presidential preference. Democrat Hillary Clinton is currently defeating Republican Donald Trump by a 29-point margin in California. Clinton’s margin is higher than President Barack Obama’s in 2008 (+24) and 2012 (+23), while Trump’s support (33%) is lower than every Republican presidential candidate since 1992. Clinton is running up big margins in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, while Trump is running behind even in Republican-leaning Orange County and “purple” areas of the state such as Fresno, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego Counties. This was occurring in California even as blue areas turned red in the nation’s swing states. The margin for the presidential race in the October PPIC survey was 26 points, indicating that polls were accurate in accounting for Trump and Clinton supporters here.
State ballot measures. California also distinguished itself from the rest of the nation by asking voters to be the deciders on 17 state propositions. The September PPIC survey found satisfaction with the initiative process but unhappiness with the scale and complexity of state measures, and the oversized role of special interests in the process. Would voters just say no to all measures or skip this portion of the ballot? They did neither. They are currently approving 12 of the 17 state propositions and, in saying yes to at least 9 of the 14 citizens’ initiatives, exceeding the historical pass rate. Apparently, and in line with PPIC reports, California voters are up to the challenge of making policy at the ballot box.
Role of government. The big surprise in the 2016 California election is a sea change in voter preferences for the role of government. Californians reversed course in terms of their own previous decisions and stood apart from a number of national trends.
- Californians passed both a cigarette tax increase (64%, Proposition 56) and marijuana legalization (56%, Proposition 64), both of which failed at the ballot earlier.
- Years after they instituted a tough-on-crime three strikes law and mandated that schools teach only in English, the state’s voters passed criminal sentencing reform (64%, Proposition 57) and bilingual education (73%, Proposition 58).
- While second-amendment rights were a litmus test for presidential candidates in other states, Californians expanded firearms restrictions (63%, Proposition 63).
- Voters may be known for their distrust in state government, but they endorsed the plastic bag ban that was passed earlier by the legislature, at the same time reinforcing their “green” credentials (53%, Proposition 67).
- Californians showed a generous streak by passing state school bonds (54%, Proposition 51), Medi-Cal funding (70%, Proposition 52), and a tax extension (62%, Proposition 55).
Notably, voter support for tax and spending propositions that we tracked in the September and October surveys were both stable and close to the election results, indicating that opinions were unmoved by the “no” campaigns. “Calexit” has become shorthand for the idea of California leaving the US. Instead, it may end up referring to Californians leaving behind the tax revolt that started here.
Voter turnout. The California Secretary of State is reporting a record-setting 15.18 million counted and unprocessed ballots in the November election. This vote count also reflects gains in the turnout among registered voters and eligible adults compared to the 2012 presidential election. Turnout rates were somewhat higher in the 2008 election. The October PPIC survey showed a high level of interest in the presidential election, and California seems to have bucked the national trend of depressed turnout. Still, only about half of the approximately 30 million California adults voted in this election. As noted in a recent PPIC report, nonvoters are mostly Latino, immigrants, lower-income, and young adults. In other words, those who don’t vote are among the most affected by changes in the role of government.
The voters have spoken and the awkward result is a conflicting policy agenda for the state government and the federal government. How will Governor Brown and the state legislature respond when the Republican president and US Congress shift gears on immigration, the Affordable Care Act, climate change, and abortion rights policies favored by California residents?
As the priorities, plans, and programs of the new president and Congress take shape, the mission of the PPIC Statewide Survey—to provide a voice for both adults and likely voters—takes on even greater importance.
And as we look further ahead, the next California governor will play a challenging role in managing the federal and state relationship. PPIC will invite the 2018 gubernatorial candidates to public forums next year to learn what we can about their leadership style and their vision for the state’s future in the changing political landscape in California and the US.