Once upon a time, there was a tropical paradise where all were welcome to claim their slice of the American Dream. They settled into their ranch houses with perpetually green lawns; palm trees lined the wide boulevards; the people frolicked year-round on the sunny beaches. In newly built planned communities, planned lives could unfold in peace, far from the insidious influence of the decaying city centers of the East.
Jobs were plentiful. World-class universities were on their doorstep, affordable with just a minimum-wage job. A man could step across the street from his home and pluck a ripe orange from the groves. A boy could safely ride his bike from Long Beach to Knott’s Berry Farm along quiet roads lined by endless dairy farms. It was an idyllic place and time, a time of effortless wonder and magic, of freedom and individual initiative, and of promising new politicians.
And everybody voted for Republicans.
In reality, large portions of Southern California have indeed been dominated by conservative politics for decades, helping to push the state of California, and the nation as well, to the right. The epicenter, of course, was Orange County, home of Richard Nixon, and, as Ronald Reagan so famously put it, “The place that I've often described as 'where the Republicans go before they die.'”
Free enterprise über alles, law’n’order, cutting taxes as a means to limit government services for “those people,” and the scapegoating and targeting of minorities all played a prominent role here, where Republicans once fantasized they could create the perfect conservative state. But as with all fantasies, it was not meant to be.
It is especially delicious, then, to watch the real-time collapse of the Republican Dream in California—and specifically Orange County— as the state party’s power shrivels into a desiccated lump of greenish oatmeal. Meanwhile, California as a whole enjoys its status as one of the most diverse and dynamic states in the country, with a thriving combination of culture and creativity—and, yes, taco stands on many corners, if not every one—making it one of the most desired regions in the world in which to live, work, or play.
In the state’s House delegation, the collapse is especially stunning. The high point for the California GOP came with the re-election of Pete “I Am Not A Racist” Wilson as governor as he campaigned for the indisputably racist Proposition 187, in 1994, the year of the Angry White Male (oh, hindsight). Prop 187 coincided with a shift in the political preferences of Latinos even more toward Democrats, and an increase in Latino political participation; while causation is difficult to prove, alternate explanations are hard to come by.
Since then, there has been neither a will nor a way for California Republicans to reverse course to any meaningful extent. Addicted to their hateful rhetoric, they have effectively sent themselves into a death spiral as the demographics of the electorate have changed.
Which brings us to this year. In January there will be fewer House Republicans from California than there were in the 1920s, when California only had 11 representatives total. Orange County, the conservative paradise, has been wiped clean of House Republicans. A brief survey of recent writings about the GOP’s fate in California yields the terms “wipeout,” “irrelevance,” “dead,” “toxic,” “debacle,” “annihilation,” and “devastation.”
That’s a far cry from the sunny conservative optimism of the ‘80s. Let’s rewind the clock a little and take a look at the 1984 presidential election:
Ronald Reagan, a former California governor, easily carried the state with nearly six in ten of all votes cast. Southern California is painted entirely red. Yet even on this map, one county stands out for its conservatism: Orange County, where three of every four voters cast their ballots for Reagan.
On the left, the standard map shows several counties with support nearly as strong. The map on the right, however, where county size is shown proportional to the number of votes cast, shows these other counties have few votes overall. The state is dominated by the bulbous population centers in Southern California, the Bay Area, and Sacramento; of the darkest red counties, only Orange County has a substantial population—the anchor of Reagan’s support.
Fast-forward to 2016, and fortunes have changed severely. Southern California is entirely blue, including, yes, Orange County, which voted Democrat for president for the first time since 1936. Fear not, though, my stouthearted Republican holdouts: Lassen County voted for Trump by nearly as much as Orange County voted for Reagan. Never mind that it’s home to just 31,000 souls.
How did such a thing happen? In short, 1984 was a high point (presidentially speaking) in the total number of votes for the Republican candidate, both in California and in Orange County. This high point was (barely) exceeded in 2004, but the problem for the GOP is that the number of Democratic votes simply has kept growing and growing—and growing.
Donald Trump won fewer votes in California in 2016 than Nixon did in 1972, but Hillary Clinton had 2 1/2 times the number of votes for George McGovern. (During that time, the state’s population climbed from 21 million to 39 million.) In Orange County, Trump managed to earn a handful more votes than Nixon, but Clinton won more than three times the number of votes for George McGovern.
What’s going on? A lot of it is simply demographics, and Orange County is a great example. The explosive growth in population there from 1950 to about 1980 was almost entirely due to an influx of white, non-Hispanic residents. Subsequent growth, however—still high—has been almost entirely non-white. Likewise, growth in the Republican vote had soared until the mid-1980s; since then, however, the number of Democratic votes has continued to increase, while Republican votes have, at best, oscillated.
These trends are part of a bigger picture of what has led to third-party status for Republicans in the state of California. Part of the reason for this is the move to the top-two primary, where party registration isn’t needed. Nevertheless, the share of registered voters who identify as Republicans has fallen dramatically, while numbers for Democrats have remained much more stable. More people now choose to identify as “No Party Preference” than Republican.
California has, without doubt, managed to break free of its conservative roots.
Another way to look at this change is by examining the change over time in election results for the state’s House districts. At the start of the decade, in the first election under the current lines in 2012, there appeared to be 10 safely Republican districts, and in a good year for Republicans, one could imagine them winning maybe up to 20.
But look how this year’s House election margins compare to 2012:
In the dark blue districts, on the right side of the figure, there was barely any change from 2012 (purple circles) to 2018 (green circles). But those mostly safe-looking Republican districts on the left? Seven of them flipped to the Democrats this year. The margins in some of these districts shifted 20 points or more! Part of this can probably be attributed to candidate quality, but part is because of shifting demographics, and changing allegiances among college-educated white voters.
The map above shows that the changes were concentrated along coastal Southern California, especially in Orange County and San Diego (for that matter, Republicans didn’t even run ahead in any of the statewide races in either county).
The changes we’ve seen taking place in California may be a preview, albeit at a more extreme scale, of what we’re about to see around the nation as a new generation of more diverse, more educated voters begins to cast its ballots. While other states won’t necessarily morph into solid blue bastions like California did, they may nevertheless show sustained shifts toward Democrats, concentrated in suburbs, as long as Trumpism dominates the Republican Party. If so, the Trump era may be remembered not as the beginning of a triumphant authoritarian white ethnonationalist one-party state, but rather the dying gasp of conservatism as we have known it these past few decades.