California Doesn't Matter

The political future once happened there; No more

Bill Bradley spent lavishly in the run-up to the presidential primary in California last March 7. He lost, but even had he won, it wouldn’t have made a difference. The Democratic presidential nomination had been decided in Al Gore’s favor before the candidates got to California. In a referendum that same primary day, Californians voted overwhelmingly (61 percent to 39 percent) to bar gay marriage. The national impact of this vote was nil, as the gay rights movement continued to gain strength. In April, Vermont became the first state to legitimize gay unions. Others may follow.

California fancies itself the Big Enchilada of American politics, the trendsetter, the state where things happen first, where national elections are won or lost, where issues are raised up or buried. And for much of the 20th century, all this was true. But no longer. California isn’t a political backwater. It’s too big for that. But its influence in national affairs has shriveled, and its reputation as “the great laboratory of America,” in Michael Barone’s phrase, has become largely a myth. In national politics, California doesn’t matter much, at least for now and probably for the foreseeable future.

Let’s start with presidential politics. California has 54 electoral votes, one fifth of the 270 needed to win the presidency. Yet the last time California’s electoral votes had any impact on the outcome of a presidential election was 1968, when Richard Nixon needed his home state to keep the contest from being decided in the House of Representatives. (Had Nixon lost California, Hubert Humphrey would have become president.) And the last time a presidential primary in California was crucial to winning the Democratic or Republican nomination was 1972, when George McGovern’s campaign would have collapsed if he hadn’t captured the state’s winner-take-all primary. Yes, Gary Hart was still in the running when he won California in 1984, but he lost the Democratic nomination to Walter Mondale.

Now, Texas governor George W. Bush must decide whether to campaign full-throttle against Vice President Al Gore in California, which has become a fairly reliable Democratic state. If he goes ahead and wages a sustained campaign here, as he has promised California Republicans he will, it won’t directly affect the election at all. Bush can win California only as part of a national Bush landslide that gives him a huge majority of the electoral vote. In other words, Bush doesn’t need California. For him, the state is a luxury, pure froth. He can win the White House without California. Gore can’t. But even if the vice president carries the state, it won’t ensure he becomes president. If Gore wins California’s 54 electoral votes and adds the votes of the Northeast states (68) and those of other normally Democratic states — Minnesota (10), Maryland (10), Washington (11), New Jersey (15), Oregon (7), and West Virginia (5) — he’ll still be 90 votes shy of capturing the presidency. The Midwest, not California, will be key to determining the next president.

What about Congress? California has 52 of the House’s 435 members. The theory goes that if Democrats win four vulnerable Republican seats in California, they’ll take control of the House. This is conceivable, but not probable. More likely is a split, since Democrats lead in one seat, trail in another, and two are tossups. Even if they win all four, however, those gains may be offset by the loss of Democratic seats in other states. Already this year, Democrats have lost a seat in Virginia, where a Democrat turned Independent and announced he’d vote with Republicans. And in Ohio, Democratic incumbent Jim Traficant indicated he’ll vote for a GOP House speaker in the next Congress. Thus, the chance that California will determine control of the next House is slim to none.

So California just isn’t what it used to be. Until the 1990s, the state previewed practically everything that happened in America, both socially and politically. The Progressive movement took hold here early in the century, pioneering the direct primary and influencing the rest of the country. The movie industry, headquartered here, became a powerful force. After World War II, California suburbanized before almost anywhere else. And in the 1950s and 1960s, the state led the nation in the building of highways, schools, water projects, and every other kind of infrastructure you can think of.

In politics, California produced the first sightings of white backlash to rapid racial integration, rising crime, and inner-city turmoil. In 1964, a state initiative passed that nullified open housing laws (it was later overturned by the courts). A year later, the first major urban riot erupted in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. In 1966, California pointed Ronald Reagan, and conservatism, on the trajectory to the White House by electing him governor. In 1978, Proposition 13 won landslide approval in a referendum that slashed property taxes and touched off a national tax-cut fever. In 1990, another successful initiative applied term limits to California legislators and stirred a nationwide drive to restrict the terms of elected officials at all levels of government.

But that was it. Throughout the 1990s, California’s clout has waned. The initiatives that once galvanized the nation now lack legs. California lost its lofty position as the state universally envied for its effective government, top-notch schools, and auto-friendly transportation system. The leading California Republicans of the 1950s and 1960s — Richard Nixon and Reagan — easily won presidential nominations and elections. The GOP heavyweight of the 1990s, governor Pete Wilson, didn’t make it to the first primary when he announced for president.

What explains California’s fall? For one thing, California has become an atypical state. It used to be reasonably representative of America, only bigger and farther out on the cutting edge of change. California had a representative mix of whites and blacks, natives and immigrants, business and labor, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. But by the late 1990s, everything was different. California was more Democratic, more pro-President Clinton, and more proabortion than the rest of America. Its population was more Hispanic and Asian. Its business community was more culturally liberal.

No longer is California a leading political indicator. “We may be too Democratic to be a bellwether,” says Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist in Los Angeles. California is one of only three states where the governor, both U.S. senators, the House delegation, and both houses of the state legislature are Democratic (Hawaii and Maryland are the others). The Democratic advantage in elections is anywhere from 4 percentage points to 10 percentage points. “If Gore is 4 points behind nationally,” insists Carrick, “he’ll be 6 points ahead here.”

California began drifting Democratic in the 1980s. In 1984, Walter Mondale did better there than he did nationally. The same was true with Michael Dukakis in 1988. Clinton won the state twice by 13 percentage points. Gray Davis did even better in 1998, winning the governorship by 20 points, a landslide. “By definition, any non-incumbent Republican running statewide is the underdog,” says Jim Brulte, the GOP leader in the state senate.

Underpinning the drift to Democrats are dramatic demographic changes, notably the doubling of the Latino electorate since 1994. Latinos are now roughly 14 percent of the voting population. The new Latino voters tend to be younger, less likely to speak English, and monolithically Democratic. When Pete Wilson was reelected governor in 1994, he got 40 percent of the Latino vote. Four years later, Republican Dan Lungren got 17 percent. And Democrats have also gained among Asians, gays, and soft Republicans living along the Pacific coast. There’s another ominous shift for Republicans. In the 1980s, Democrats were twice as likely as Republicans to vote for a candidate not of their own party. Now Republicans are twice as likely to cross over.

Garry South, Davis’s chief political adviser, claims the Republican problem is easily explainable. “They are an anti-choice, pro-gun, anti-environment, and pro-tobacco party in a state that is arguably the most pro-choice, anti-gun, pro-environment, and anti-tobacco in the country,” he says. “It’s not a good fit.” Republicans all but concede they’ve lost control of the state’s agenda. “The Republican party stopped standing for anything about 10 years ago,” grouses state assemblyman Tom McClintock. “This allowed Democrats to define us on issues they’d like to define us on — abortion, guns, the environment.” Republicans currently trail 25-15 in the state senate and 48-32 in the assembly. They’re more likely than not to lose seats in November.

Just as California has become politically idiosyncratic, its state referenda have lost their national relevance. The last to have significance outside the state was Proposition 209, which was passed in 1996 and outlaws race and gender quotas and preferences. But it didn’t create a bandwagon, as Proposition 13 had in 1978. Its reach has been limited. In 1998, a copycat referendum was approved in Washington. Since then, George W. Bush has pointedly not endorsed the idea of ending affirmative action. His brother Jeb Bush, GOP governor of Florida, has opposed a 209-like referendum in his state. Prop. 209, Carrick says, “just hasn’t traveled well.” Nor has Proposition 187, passed in 1994, which aimed to cut off state services to illegal aliens, or Proposition 22, passed this year, which bars homosexual marriage. Both hurt Republicans in California, however, among Latinos and gays.

The truth is, California initiatives have lost a good bit of their populist flavor and, according to Carrick, their “grass-roots appeal.” It’s become “more expensive and harder to get them on the ballot,” he says. So initiatives are often California-specific and special-interest oriented – – and not applicable or politically marketable in other states. Big money has flowed recently into initiatives on such matters as gambling on Indian reservations and legal spats between trial lawyers and health care providers and insurers.

There’s another inescapable truth that has made California less politically influential. The state itself has deteriorated. Its economy has recovered from the early 1990s recession, but the quality of life hasn’t. This is politically important because it means the state is no longer an object of envy. California is still living off the schools, highways, and water storage facilities of decades ago. In L.A., only half the planned freeways have been built, which explains the 24-7 traffic congestion. Tom McClintock says when he moved to California from New York as a fourth-grader in 1965, he had trouble keeping up in school. Now the schools are inadequate. Democratic congressman Howard Berman says when he was growing up in L.A. he didn’t know anyone who went to private school. Now the private school population in the state is 600,000 and growing.

California’s newly marginal status makes Bush’s decision on whether to devote serious resources to the state problematic. So far, though, polls that show him tied or just behind Gore have made California look inviting. Brulte says he hasn’t had to urge Bush to commit to a major effort. “Bush himself is the biggest proponent of Bush in California,” he says. In the run-up to the national convention beginning July 31, the Republican National Committee spent $ 1 million on TV for Bush in California. “You don’t spend a million in California just to say howdy,” says chief Bush strategist Karl Rove.

A major effort in California may be a mistake. In 1996, Bob Dole poured money into California, where he had no chance against Clinton, and de-emphasized Pennsylvania, a state he might have won. Democrats insist Bush is in roughly the same position. South points out that a prolifer hasn’t won a major statewide race in California since 1988. Besides, South says, once state voters learn how conservative Bush is, they’ll never back him. Naturally, Democrats would like to win California by default and free up money for Gore to spend in contested states. Bush says this won’t happen.

“California’s in play,” says Ken Khachigian, a veteran GOP strategist. “I don’t care what anyone says. The Bush crowd would be crazy to let California go. The math works totally in their favor.” Khachigian claims Bush can win one-third or more of the Latino vote. He can count on Republican loyalty. “We’re desperate to win a statewide election,” Khachigian says. And “he fits the state culturally a little better” than Dole or his father, President Bush. Like Brulte, Khachigian says the Republican problem in California is serious but not fundamental. “The party will come back if we win the presidency,” he says. “Bush will make it positive to be a Republican again.” And California would again become a two-party state. Still, I haven’t found a single Democrat who thinks this is remotely possible. The furthest Berman would go was to say California is not quite as rigidly Democratic as Massachusetts. Says South: “The way population trends are moving, they spell long-term ascendancy for Democrats and long-term problems for Republicans.”

Maybe. But two other contests in California this year have the potential for rebuilding the state’s reputation as a bellwether and perhaps boosting the Republican party. One of the vulnerable GOP House seats is held by Jim Rogan, a House impeachment manager. The suburban L.A. district, having grown more Democratic in recent years, is a microcosm of the state. It “mirrors” the state “demographically and electorally,” Rogan says. And there’s only one real issue in the race — impeachment, right or wrong.

Clinton has twice encountered Rogan’s Democratic challenger, Adam Schiff, at California fund-raising events. Both times he made a beeline for Schiff, saying that he’ll do whatever he can to elect Schiff. “I take it [the president] is a bit miffed with my role in impeachment,” Rogan says. Clinton won the district by 20 percentage points in 1996, Davis by 25 points two years later. Rogan got barely over 50 percent each time. If he wins, that will be a clear signal of public approval of impeachment, even in a state where Clinton has been enormously popular. If Rogan loses . . . well, you can figure it out. (Either way, Rogan says he has no regrets. He knew the risks when he went for impeachment. “I may pay the ultimate price,” he says. “Actually I think I may pull the rabbit out of the hat again.”)

The other fight with national implications is over Proposition 38 on school choice. It would provide a $ 4,000 voucher for every California student who chooses to attend a private school. In 1993, a school choice initiative lost by better than 2-to- 1. But vouchers are more popular now, especially among low-income blacks and Latinos. Seven years ago, the advocates of choice were outspent by 10- to-1. This time, a wealthy Silicon Valley businessman, Tim Draper, promises to spend $ 20 million of his own money on behalf of Prop. 38. The teachers’ unions, joined by Democratic leaders, strongly oppose the initiative and will spend at least that much to defeat it. The best guess is they’ll prevail.

But just imagine if Prop. 38 won. It would stir momentum for school vouchers all over the country. The education establishment would never be the same. And California would matter again.

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