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Blog Post · March 26, 2024

How Has Party Voting Changed in California?

This blog post is the third in a series celebrating PPIC’s 30th anniversary.

photo - Donkey and Elephant Political Party Symbols

PPIC is turning 30 this year, and a lot has changed in California’s party politics during the institute’s lifetime. In the decades before PPIC was founded, the state was known for weak party attachment among voters and a mix of partisan outcomes. Like the country as a whole—which tended toward Republican presidents and Democratic congresses—California often paired Republican governors with Democratic state legislative majorities. From 1952 to 1988, the state voted Republican for president in every election but one. But the early nineties marked a turning point in these party politics.

California’s partisan pendulum began to swing in 1992, when the coalition that had supported Republicans for president collapsed with Ross Perot’s third-party candidacy, and Democrat Bill Clinton won the state in the resulting three-way contest. Over the next three decades California became a Democratic presidential stronghold. For many years, it was a reliable but not overwhelmingly Democratic state akin to Minnesota or Virginia today; in 2008, it became a solidly Democratic state with the election of Barack Obama.

During Obama’s presidency, Democratic registration climbed and Republican registration fell for the first time in decades. The Democrats had held a majority in the state legislature since 1996, but the Obama registration surge gradually extended it past supermajority thresholds that gave Democrats undisputed control of state government.

Beneath the surface of this Democratic shift, California was becoming polarized. The move toward the Democrats in 1992 was primarily in the coastal metros, especially the Bay Area and Los Angeles. This opened up a large gap in political preferences between regions that had been far more muted. Over time, the state’s inland regions have become bluer and now vote majority Democratic. But a large regional gap remains.

figure - California’s coastal metros have become Democratic much faster than the rest of the state

Voting patterns in state legislature and US House races have increasingly aligned with voting in higher offices, especially president. The two-party vote in the average congressional or state legislative district differed from the presidential vote by 6 percentage points or more in 1992; by 2020, the difference was 3 percentage points or less. The 2016 election briefly disrupted the trend, when voters were notably less enthusiastic about Donald Trump than about downballot Republicans. But the 2020 election marked a return to form.

figure - Votes for downballot offices now closely match the vote for president

This gradual partisan alignment has occurred statewide, though not to the same degree in all places. In the 1990s, deviations between presidential and congressional elections were large everywhere. In the last two presidential elections, the deviations were smaller than 4 percentage points in almost all parts of the state. The most notable exceptions were in the southern San Joaquin Valley and coast as well as the Inland Empire to the east of Los Angeles.

figure - Presidential and congressional votes deviate more in the San Joaquin Valley and Inland

These shifts in voting patterns have divided the state into political regions with relatively predictable party outcomes. There are still some competitive races, but they are more concentrated in certain parts of the state. And because the Democrats dominate in Sacramento, the consequences of these competitive races for state policy are more limited. That leaves the congressional races, where the results matter more because they feed into a US House chamber with a narrow and uncertain party majority.

Changes in partisan voting patterns during PPIC’s first 30 years have been significant. Loose party attachments have given way to solid party voting patterns, and while there can still be surprises, California is now a very Democratic state. The state may well see equally large changes over the next 30 years—and PPIC expects to be around to track them.


2024 Election California State Legislature Democratic Party elections party registration Political Landscape PPIC 30th anniversary presidential elections Republican Party US Congress voter registration voters