California the Exception in a Nation Increasingly Voting Republican

Mark DiCamillo, director of The Field Poll

The 2014 midterm election saw a continuation of the electoral resurgence of the Republican Party across most of the country during the six-year period since Barack Obama was elected president. Not only did Republicans regain control of the Senate, picking up eight seats, they have now gained a net fourteen seats since Obama became president.

On the House side, while a number of close races remain undecided, Republicans picked up at least twelve seats from the Democrats this cycle. When combined with the two previous House elections during the Obama presidency, the GOP has captured a net of at least sixty-eight seats since Obama assumed office.

A similar trend has been occurring across the fifty states. This cycle the Republicans picked up three governorships, and since Obama was first elected, have netted six.

The Republican resurgence has been even greater with regard to party control across state legislative chambers. This year, published estimates indicate that the GOP has won control of at least ten state legislative chambers. When combined with earlier election cycles during the Obama presidency, the net pick-up for the Republican Party totals thirty-two chambers.

This means that Republicans now control 69 of the nation’s 99 legislative chambers, a record high for the GOP. In addition, Republicans also now control the governorship and both houses of the state legislature in 23 states, more than three times the number where Democrats hold single-party control. The latter, of course, includes California.

This is in sharp contrast to the election outcomes in California over the same period. In the two gubernatorial elections held in California since Obama’s election, including this year’s, the Democratic candidates have swept every statewide partisan post, fourteen in all.

The Democratic Party has also continued its domination over the state’s congressional delegation and both houses of the state legislature, holding about two-to-one advantages over the GOP throughout this period. While the GOP scored a few gains in legislative races this year, this was more than offset by Democratic Party gains two years ago.

A comparison of the results of polls conducted nationwide to those conducted here in California underscore a number of differences in outlook between the two voting constituencies.

The first relates to the job approval ratings given to the chief executive. At the time of this year’s election, the average of national polls showed that more voters disapproved than approved of the job President Obama was doing 53% to 42%. By contrast, in California more voters approved than disapproved of the job their chief executive, Governor Jerry Brown, was doing 58% to 36%. In addition, the direction of change in voter assessments was moving in the opposite directions, with Obama’s ratings trending downward, and Brown’s on the rise.

A second area of divergence relates to views about the direction that the country or the state was heading. Nationally, for some time now many more Americans have felt the country was seriously off on the wrong track than have believed it was moving in the right direction. The average of the national polls at the time of the election showed that 66% of U.S. voters felt the country was seriously off on the wrong track, while just 28% felt it was moving in the right direction.

In California the most recent Field Poll showed slightly more voters here believing the state was heading in the right direction than seriously off on the wrong track, 43% to 41%, and that over time it was trending in the positive direction.

Another difference between the two electorates relates to the job approval ratings of the legislative branch. Nationally, Americans have been offering historically low assessments of the job Congress has been doing for some time now, with an average of 81% disapproving and just 13% approving of its performance at the time of the election.

In California, while voters have not been wild about the job performance of the state legislature – the most recent Field Poll shows 34% approving and 42% disapproving – views about its performance have been improving compared to prior years when record high proportions disapproved of its performance.

The Obama Factor
Other attitudinal differences between voters nationwide and those in California were on display in the exit polls conducted by Edison Media Research for NBC and CNN.

For example, when voters nationwide were asked about the influence that President Obama had on their voting preferences in local House races, more said theirs was a vote against President Obama than said it was a vote in support of him, 33% to 19%. (The rest said Obama was not a factor in their voting decision.)

When California voters were asked the same question, the reverse was true, with more saying their vote for House was a vote in support of the President than a vote against him, 28% to 22%.

In addition, when asked to assess the nation’s health reform law, slightly more voters nationwide (49%) felt the law went too far than said it was about right or didn’t go far enough (46%). Here in California the exit poll showed a 54% majority saying the law was about right or didn’t go far enough, while just 38% felt it went too far.

Big differences were also seen in voter assessments of the government’s response to the Ebola crisis. Across the country according to the exit polls, more Americans disapproved than approved of the government’s response to the crisis, 52% to 42%. By contrast, the exit poll showed Californians more supportive of the government’s response, with 53% saying they approved, while 37% disapproved.

Views about social issues also were significantly different, especially with regard to voter acceptance of same-sex marriage laws. The national exit poll found Americans evenly divided on the issue, with 48% approving and 48% disapproving. Opinions in California were quite different, with 61% of voters approving and 35% disapproving.

A Mutual Lack of Interest
However, one thing that Americans and Californians had in common was their mutual lack of interest in the midterm election, resulting in historically low voter turnouts. Nationally, the most recent published estimates report that only about 37% of all citizen-eligible Americans bothered to cast a vote this year, the lowest general election turnout in over seventy years.

The Field Poll forecast similar depressing turnout estimates for California. Prior to the election, it forecast that only about 34% of the state’s citizen-eligible adults (and 46% of its registered voters) would cast ballots. While many counties around the state are still counting provisional and late arriving mail ballots, it appears that when all the votes are counted, turnout in this year’s election will fall short of even this dismal forecast.

Two Very Different Types of Electorates
The steep decline in voter turnout during non-presidential election years is creating two very different types of electorates, both across the nation and within California. During presidential election years, voter turnout is much larger and includes larger proportions of young voters and ethnic voters.

However, during non-presidential election years when turnout is now considerably lower, the electorate is heavily skewed to the older and white non-Hispanic voting constituencies. For example, the national exit poll reported that just 13% of voters were under age 30, while ethnic voters comprised just 23% of the total, much lower than percentages found in recent presidential elections. The final pre-election Field Poll found similar distributions in California, with only 11% of likely voters under the age 30, and about 30% being voters of color.

Yet, while record low turnout characterized both the U.S. and California electorates this year, its impact on election outcomes was dramatically different. Increasingly, victory for Democratic candidates across the country appears to be highly dependent on the turnout of young and ethnic voters. When they don’t show, Democrats usually don’t win.

However, in California the state’s Democratic candidates have displayed remarkable resiliency, as they again swept all seven statewide partisan election contests this year.

What then are the factors responsible for these very different outcomes?

First, even in low turnout elections, the California electorate includes proportionately more ethnic voters than does the U.S. electorate. This benefits Democratic candidates across the state. However, its net effect in low turnout non-presidential election years is much less than in presidential election years.

In this year’s election, an even larger force underpinning the differences in statewide election outcomes here to those across the country was the voting preferences of white non-Hispanic voters.

According to the exit polls, whites nationally voted for Republican candidates over Democratic candidates in House races by 24 points (62% to 38%). An identical result was observed in the 2010 midterm election, which also saw the GOP dominating at the polls. Both were significantly wider margins than observed in midterm elections prior to Obama’s presidency.

While the California exit poll available publicly didn’t subdivide the electorate with regard to voter preferences in House races across the state, a good substitute would be to examine the preferences of voters in the state’s six partisan candidate elections other than governor (i.e., the “down-ballot” races) as measured in the final pre-election Field Poll, whose results closely corresponded to election outcomes in each race.

What it shows is that this year the state’s white non-Hispanic voters were evenly divided in their preferences between the Democrat and Republican candidates across the six down-ballot races, with each party’s candidates averaging about 44% of the voting preferences. This is in stark contrast to the 24-percentage point advantage that Republicans held over the Democrats in House races across the country.

Thus, one of the major factors underlying the very different election outcomes nationally and in California relates to the voting preferences of white non-Hispanics.

The Regional Divide
A second overarching characteristic of this year’s vote in California was the large regional divide between the preferences of voters living across the state’s twenty coastal counties and those living in its thirty-eight inland counties.

These regional differences are on full display in the maps reporting the statewide election returns at the California Secretary of State’s official website, with the Democrats prevailing in three-quarters or more of the coastal counties in all six down-ballot elections and the Republicans capturing greater the seven in ten inland counties across these same races.

Because about seven in ten of the state’s voters live in a coastal county, their will usually prevails in statewide elections. However, in recent years the preference margins that coastal county voters have been giving to Democratic candidates have been larger than the advantage Republican candidates have received among inland county voters.

This year, according to results posted on the Secretary of State’s website (as of this morning), each statewide down-ballot Democratic candidate carried the coastal county vote by margins ranging from 14 percentage points to 22 points. Conversely, Republican candidates carried inland county voters in each race, but with smaller victory margins, prevailing by between 2 and 12 points.

In addition, these two factors – race/ethnicity and whether a voter lives in a coastal or inland county – were actually operating in tandem in this election. An examination of the final pre-election Field Poll shows that the voting preferences of white non-Hispanics living in the state’s inland counties were favoring GOP candidates in the state’s six partisan down-ballot races, much like the rest of the country was favoring Republicans.

According to the poll, white non-Hispanic voters living in the state’s thirty-eight inland counties were supporting Republican candidates in these races by an average of 20 points, 51% to 31%, similar to the 24-point Republican edge in House races.

By contrast, the poll shows that white non-Hispanics living in the state’s twenty coastal counties were supporting Democratic candidates in the down-ballot races by an average of ten points, 46% to 36%.

Thus, one of the biggest contributors to the Democratic Party’s electoral successes here versus its dismal showing across the country relates to the very different voting preferences of the state’s white non-Hispanic voters, and in particular, those living along the coast.

This article is based on the prepared remarks of Mark DiCamillo to the Sacramento Press Club, on November 12, 2014. It is published here with the permission of the author.