Cultural Gap Could Help State GOP, Hurt Democrats
Dan Walters, Sacramento Bee, May 2
The 2000 census confirmed what other demographic studies had already demonstrated: California entered the 21st century as the nation’s most culturally diverse state.
The state’s non-Latino white population had dropped to below 50 percent during the 1990s while those of Latinos and Asian Americans surged. In truth, however, California’s cultural diversity is far more complex than a few ethnic classifications. One could argue, in fact, that California is the most complex society in the history of humankind.
In theory, California’s politics should be just as diverse. In fact, they are not, and if anything, the political diversity gap is widening — perhaps to the detriment of the Democratic Party, which positions itself as the champion of nonwhite and immigrant Californians.
It’s no secret among political professionals that California’s voters — real voters, not theoretical voters or even registered voters — are overwhelmingly white, middle-aged, homeowning and relatively affluent. Election Day exit polls of voters have confirmed that fact year after year, and the voting numbers have remained remarkably consistent even as the overall demography has rapidly evolved.
A new study by the Public Policy Institute of California confirms this pattern, and indicates that it extends beyond voting to other forms of “civic engagement,” including contributing to political candidates and attending political events. “Those who are white, affluent, homeowners and high educated have a disproportionate say in California politics and representation in the civic life of the state,” the PPIC concludes.
The proportion of Californians who meet those criteria is shrinking — especially the ranks of white Californians — but because their political participation rates remain high, the “characteristic gap,” as one might call it, continues to widen. And that creates a peculiar dilemma for those who aspire to or hold political office: whether they should cater to their very diverse constituents or to the narrower band of voters when the priorities of the two groups differ.
One example of the dilemma: The state Legislature, dominated by liberal Democrats, passed a flurry of left-of-center measures during 2002 and 2003, exemplified by a law granting driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. But after the governor who signed the measure, Gray Davis, was recalled by voters, the Legislature quickly repealed the law, knowing that it was likely to be voided by referendum anyway.
Democratic leaders have assumed that as the state continued to diversify, rising levels of voting by Latinos and other new immigrants would guarantee the viability of their party, and during the late 1990s, that hope seemed to be coming true. But in more recent years, Latino voting has leveled off, even declined, and the trends highlighted in the PPIC study remain strong. If the California Democratic Party continues to march to the beat of its left wing, it could place itself in the same peril as Republicans did when they listened only to their right wing.
The Democrats’ potential peril is highlighted in the most recent voter registration statistics maintained by the secretary of state’s office. Aggressive Republican registration efforts — helped greatly by the popularity of GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — have closed the gap between the two parties to the narrowest level in more than 60 years.
Four years ago, Democrats had 45.42 percent of the state’s voters and Republicans had 34.9 percent. Today, the margin is 43.2 percent to 35.6 percent. The longer-term trend is even more dramatic. Thirty years ago, Democrats had nearly 57 percent of registered voters in the state while Republicans were at virtually the same level they are now.
Obviously, the Democrats’ losses have not been, for the most part, Republican gains. The ranks of independent voters have expanded sharply. Democrats have prospered recently by attracting independents while Republicans have alienated them with rigidly conservative social positions, such as opposition to abortion. But with Schwarzenegger’s advent, the state GOP is repositioning itself in the middle while Democrats have drifted to the left. That could push all-important independents and moderates toward Republicans.