Politics & society

As demographics change, California GOP fades as a political force

Most new voters in California are Latinx or Asian American, but few register as Republicans, says new Berkeley IGS report.

The dome of the capital in Sacramento

Just 30 years ago, Republicans were a dominant political force in California. But demographics have changed, and a new Berkeley IGS Poll report suggests the Republicans have not. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Demographic change is transforming the California political landscape, with rising numbers of younger Latinx and Asian American voters identifying mostly as independents and Democrats, according to a new report from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS).

While voter registration statewide has increased by about 8.5 million people since 1990, the poll found “virtually no increase” in the number of registered Republicans. GOP registration has held steady at 5.3 million voters, but voters registering as Democrats have surged by about a third and now outnumber Republicans by almost two to one. “No party preference” voters nearly quadrupled in that time, drawing roughly even with the GOP.

[See the full IGS report on California’s changing electorate.]

Of those new voters, 80% are Latinx or Asian Americans, the Berkeley IGS Poll found. Among those two demographic groups, the report said, “only a small proportion are registered Republicans.”

IGS co-Director Eric Schickler said the numbers may be a troubling augur for Republicans nationwide. “California’s transformation captures what Democrats hope will be the future for other states, like Texas and Arizona, which also exhibit growing racial and ethnic diversity among their voters,” Schickler said.

The issue is well known to Republican Party leaders. In 2013, after losing a second race to Democratic incumbent Barack Obama, the party produced an “autopsy” report that called for increased efforts to appeal to younger people and communities of color.

But three years later, the Republicans nominated Donald Trump, and during his campaign and in his presidency, Trump has focused intensively on a largely white, older base of support, often alienating a new, more diverse generation of voters.

A dramatic slide since 1990

Before the early 1990s, the state’s political character was much different. Between 1948 and 1992, the IGS authors said, California consistently favored Republican presidential candidates, with the only exception being the 1964 reelection campaign of Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson.

Thirty years ago, the party registration numbers were dramatically different, the IGS poll reported. Nearly four in five voters then were white, with Latinx voters accounting for 10% of the electorate, Black voters accounting for 7% and Asian Americans, 4%.

IGS co-Director Cristina Mora cited 1994 as an emblematic year for Republican power in that era.

“For a time,” Mora said, “the state Republican Party was able to make gains in statewide elections, relying on the heavy turnout of white voters. This culminated with the reelection of Republican Pete Wilson as governor in 1994 and with the passage of some of the nation’s toughest anti-immigration laws, including Proposition 187.”

But that power has largely faded.

This year, the proportion of white voters statewide has fallen to 53%, compared to 27% for Latinx voters, 14% for Asian Americans and 6% for Black voters. And Democrats hold all statewide offices, from the governor’s office on down.

The Berkeley IGS Poll findings are based on a statewide survey completed online in English and Spanish between Oct. 16 and 21, 2020, by Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS). The margin of error is estimated at plus or minus two percentage points.

[See past reports from the Berkeley IGS Poll.]