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Itís Not Your Motherís California

New America Media, Interview, Annette Fuentes Posted: Aug 08, 2009

Editorís Note: Over the last 30 years, California has gained an astounding 15 million in population and many of those new residents represent a new, diverse demographic landscape of Asian and Latino immigrants and their children. The impact on the Golden Stateís political parties and electorate is equally dramatic and described in a two-part report from The Field Poll released this week. The first part examines changes in the demographics of the stateís electorate while the second part looks at changes in votersí attitudes about key social issues, such as gay marriage and abortion rights. NAM editor Annette Fuentes talked to Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo about the seismic changes he has identified over three decades of change, and what they mean for the future.

Your survey looks at changes in the stateís electorate over three dynamic decades and found that the Republican Party is increasingly white while the Democratic Party and nonpartisan voters are gaining diversity. You also found that voters attitudes are getting more liberal on social issues. What struck you as most significant?

Iím such a numbers junky that the demographics story was even more impressive than the social attitudes piece. When I look at the numbers, they are the parameters of surveys weíve been doing over a long time. I was here in 1978 and did the first survey of the electorate then. I think: My, how time has flown. This is not your motherís California.

California grew from 23 million to 38 million since your first survey, with Latinos nearly doubling to 37 percent and Asians more than doubled at 14.2 percent of state residents. And their presence is reshaping the political parties. Forty-five percent of Democrats are voters of color today, compared to 24 percent in 1978. Meanwhile, the Republican Party is 21 percent ethnic voters, compared to 7 percent back then. Is it fair to say that the new Californians are going Democratic?

The data would suggest that most of the growth in registered voters, which is 7 million new voters, is from those populations. But if you look at numbers, over a third of registration has occurred among nonpartisans. That is the key trend. Not movement to the Democrats. Their share has declined. What has changed is the huge increase in nonpartisans. That is where the action is, and a lot of that segment are ethnic voters -- 41 percent are Asian or Latino or African American. That looks a lot like the Democratic Party. When it comes down to elections, it comes down to the nonpartisans and they look a lot like Democrats. They have a lot of the same social beliefs. I would also say if you look at issues most important to Latinos, it would be very basic things like, ĎI want to educate my kid,í or ĎI want health care for my family.í Those are the services the Democrats try to deliver and the Republicans are trying to scale back.

Why are newer voters remaining nonpartisan and not registering for either major party?

I would think that for many first generation immigrants there is not a strong attachment to either party when they come to the state. There is no influence of parents and so there is a weaker tie to the parties and a tendency to stay independent and nonpartisan. But itís clear they are siding more with the Democrats.

As the trend toward greater numbers of nonpartisan continues, whatís happening to parties themselves is they are becoming more polarized. A lot of moderates who were Republicans became nonpartisans, and in some ways the same thing has happened with Democrats. They are a little more ideologically liberal now than 30 years ago, and some of the more moderates are moving to nonpartisans. Who is left is more extremes. You see it in legislature and the inability to work together. That is reflected in parties themselves. Nonpartisans turnout is very low in elections, but their numbers will continue to grow. Now they are 20 percent. In 10 years that will be 30, 35 percent and we will move away from two-party gridlock, and nonpartisans start to have their say. But it will take a while.

You also found that the population is shifting, with white Republicans abandoning coastal areas to move inland. Is that a sort of white flight?

Iím not sure it is a white flight in that sense. It has a lot to do with the economy. Housing is simply much cheaper in inland areas, and if youíre raising a family itís easier to go inland than in the Bay Area or Los Angeles. Especially first-time home buyers are needing to move away from LA and the Bay Area. Itís not the entire coast, but those two coastal regions that have lost population.

The surveys also show that Californian voters in general are becoming more liberal on social issues, like gay marriage, which they support today 49 percent to 44 percent, compared to 31 percent for and 62 percent against in 1978. Yet voters of both parties and nonpartisans have the same opinion today on taxes and the stateís notorious Proposition 187 limiting property tax, as 30 years ago when it passed. Support is still at 57 percent. Why is that?

One of other demgraphic changes we observed is that a larger share of the electorate is homeowners, more than 30 years ago. Also, the population of registered voters has aged. Once they bought a home, they have a parochial view of being protected from taxes and thatís what Prop 187 is about. All the homeowners turned out to vote in favor of it, and they have the vested interest in maintaining it.

How do Californiaís trends on political party affiliation compare to other states?

I donít think you see the demographic changes we have here in other states. The most powerful changes are in California. In the United States, the changes in California are massive compared to any other state. There might be urban areas where the population is changing but not on the scale of 15 million people, most of them ethnic minorities.

Related Articles:

Cal Republicans Lonely But Brave

Obama Will Win California with Biggest Margin Ever: Field Poll

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