California Offers a Look Into Future of Politics
By: J.J. Jackson
Presidential Hopefuls Converge on State Increasingly Influenced by Independents, Hispanics
By JONATHAN KAUFMAN and JIM CARLTON
To travel across California these days is to see the unfolding contours of the future of American politics.
To the north, in Tracy, a growing bloc of independent voters is swinging between Democrats and Republicans, prompting California politicians to seek bipartisan compromises even as the state legislature is riven by deep ideological divides.
To the south, in Orange County, a surging bloc of Hispanic voters is loosening the Republican grip on what was once known as Reagan country, tipping the state further into blue territory.
Presidential candidates converging on California over the past week have focused on its large delegate haul, which accounts for about a fifth of all delegates up for grabs from Super Tuesday states. But they have also been testing messages on voters who represent emerging trends across the country: independent voters, Hispanics and voters eager for more bipartisanship.
California, which has a population of about 37 million, has long been a bellwether for political trends. These days, the trend is moderation. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who last week endorsed Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, has worked with the Democratic-controlled legislature on several measures. Up next: trying to achieve bipartisan cooperation to address a massive budget deficit being fed by falling housing prices and an economic slowdown.
California is seeing a rise in independent voters. Since the 2000 presidential election, the number of voters registered as Democrats or Republicans in California has fallen by 800,000, while the “decline to state,” or independent, rolls have grown by 700,000. Independents now account for one in five voters in California and have injected a new level of uncertainty into state politics. They backed the Republican Mr. Schwarzenegger in the 2003 governor’s recall election and in his 2006 re-election bid. But they also supported Democratic U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer in 2004 and Dianne Feinstein in 2006.
It is a trend spreading throughout the West, creating new battleground states in November. Independents in Arizona, for example, have jumped to 28% of registered voters from 22% in 2002.
Few places better illustrate the political transformation going on in California than Tracy, a city on the edge of California’s Central Valley 60 miles east of San Francisco. Once a sleepy outpost tied to the valley’s vast agriculture business, Tracy since 1990 has nearly doubled its population to about 80,000.
Many new arrivals are like Gary Easterday and his wife, Gayle, who two years ago decided to sell their home in the Silicon Valley city of Fremont to buy a much larger home in a giant master-planned community on the outskirts of Tracy. The couple paid $680,000 for the four-bedroom home, or roughly the same as what they were able to sell their home for in Fremont. “We loved having so much space,” recalls Mr. Easterday, a retired airline maintenance manager.
Mr. Easterday voted for Ronald Reagan but has also cast ballots for Bill Clinton. In 2006, he was part of a changing demographic in the Tracy area that threw out a seven-term conservative Republican congressman, Richard Pombo, and replaced him with a Democrat. In the presidential race, Mr. Easterday, who isn’t registered with any political party, says he is leaning toward Mr. McCain. His wife has already cast her absentee ballot for Tuesday’s primary. Her choice: Hillary Clinton.
“I just don’t believe in joining parties and voting the party line,” says the 67-year-old Mr. Easterday. “You might end up with somebody you don’t want.”
Such fickleness makes it difficult to predict who the independents will back for president. New York Sen. Clinton leads Barack Obama by two percentage points, within the margin of error, in a statewide Field Poll released yesterday — with the Illinois senator making up a difference that just two weeks ago was in the double digits mainly on his support among independents, which according to the poll now favor him by a 5-to-3 ratio.
Independents aren’t allowed to vote in California’s Republican primary, but the Field Poll also showed Mr. McCain — who leads other candidates in polling — getting the biggest support from California Republicans who identify themselves as moderates.
California state politicians have responded to the growing clout of independents by agreeing to reach across the aisle more to work on issues. Gov. Schwarzenegger, for example, has forged deals with the speaker of the Democratic-controlled Assembly, Fabian NuÃ±ez on a variety of issues including a plan to fight global warming and bonds to repair the state’s crumbling infrastructure.
“You have to take these voters into account,” Mr. NuÃ±ez says. “You have to put away hyperpartisanship and get things done.”
The growth of the Hispanic vote is another factor reshaping California politics and the politics of states throughout the Southwest. Hispanics now make up about 36% of California’s population and about 23% of eligible voters. Nationally, Hispanics are the largest and fastest-growing minority group, making up about 15% of the U.S. population and about 9% of eligible voters.
Orange County, about 400 miles to the south of Tracy, has already seen the impact Hispanic voters can have. The Web site for the Orange County Republican Party still brags that it is “America’s Most Republican County.” But today, 49% of the county’s voters are registered Republicans, down from 56% in 1990. Democrats hold two state legislative seats, a congressional seat and scores of local offices.
Teresa Saldivar has owned a jewelry store in predominantly Hispanic Santa Ana for 32 years. “My customers are now registered to vote,” she says. “Their children are registered to vote, their grandchildren.”
Ms. Saldivar herself recently switched her party registration from Republican to Democrat. In 2004 she voted for President Bush; this year she plans to vote for Mrs. Clinton. “The Republicans are not immigrant-friendly,” she says.
Republican officials respond that measures such as bolstering border security, cracking down on companies that employ undocumented workers and deporting undocumented workers are aimed at illegal immigrants, not immigrants who come into the country legally.
The Republicans are paying a price for their stance on immigration. In 1994, California Hispanics flocked to the Democratic Party when Republicans backed passage of a referendum that sought to restrict access to services by immigrants. President Bush’s courting of the Hispanic vote temporarily stopped the slide; in 2004 he won an estimated 40% of the Hispanic vote nationally, a record for a Republican presidential candidate.
But now Republican support among Hispanics is hemorrhaging again. Nationally, 57% of Hispanic registered voters call themselves Democrats or say they lean toward the Democratic Party, while just 23% align with the Republican Party, according to a survey last fall by the Pew Hispanic Center. Hispanic voters overwhelmingly tell pollsters they believe Democrats, rather than Republicans, are doing the better job of dealing with immigration issues.
The political consequences of the Hispanic vote in Orange County are prompting some Republicans to search for ways to moderate their immigration stand and broaden their base. That could be good news for Mr. McCain, one of the most pro-immigration Republicans, both on Tuesday and in the general election.
Whether the next president can bridge the political divide to focus on problems like the economy remains to be seen. Already fissures in the bipartisan alliance Gov. Schwarzenegger has forged with legislative Democrats are starting to appear amid the state’s economic malaise.
“What people in California want is for all this bickering to go away, to get something done,” says Mark Baldassare, head of the Public Policy Institute of California, a think tank.
That may be the biggest challenge California and the nation’s voters present to the candidates.
Write to Jonathan Kaufman at firstname.lastname@example.org and Jim Carlton at email@example.com
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J.J. Jackson is a libertarian conservative author from Pittsburgh, PA who has been writing and promoting individual liberty since 1993 and is President of Land of the Free Studios, Inc. He is the Pittsburgh Conservative Examiner for Examiner.com. He is also the owner of The Right Things - Conservative T-shirts & Gifts The Right Things. His weekly commentary along with exclusives not available anywhere else can be found at Liberty Reborn.