Doubling Down on White Voters: The California Experience

California’s experience shows that targeting white voters helps a political party in the short run and kills it in the long run

Andrew Sullivan has a helpful round up of the current debate about whether the GOP can attain electoral success in the face of increasing population diversity by “doubling down” on white voters. The experience of California suggests that such a strategy can help a political party in the short term, but only at the cost of crippling it in the long term.

Younger Americans are often surprised to learn that California was a Republican-friendly state for decades. Other than in the 1964 LBJ landslide win over Goldwater, Californians supported a Republican for President every cycle from 1952 through 1988. However, by the early 1990s, the increasing diversity of the state began to alter the political landscape, just as it is doing now nationally.

The debate within the California GOP at the time was eerily similar to that happening within the national Republican Party today. Virtually all Republican leaders conceded that the rise of Latino and Asian-American voters required some response, but what that response should be was the subject of intense disagreement.

California GOP reformers, noting that a Democratic Presidential Candidate (Bill Clinton) had broken the GOP lock on the state in 1992 with strong support from minority voters, argued that the party had to modernize by reaching out to people of color. A different faction, who pointed out that Clinton had captured only 46% of the popular vote and that Ross Perot had attracted many conservative white voters, insisted that the Republican party needed to go hard right, including by making race-based appeals to white voters.

The two GOP factions battled each other in the lead-up to the 1994 gubernatorial election and the “double-downers” won. Anti-immigrant ballot Proposition 187 was the central issue of the contest, and like any Californian I can attest to the venomous, racially-divisive nature of the debate that surrounded it. Republican Pete Wilson publicly embraced the measure at every campaign stop, and rode anti-immigrant sentiment to re-election with strong support from White voters.

In the process, Wilson and those who advised him to double-down on white voters did lasting damage to the California Republican Party from which it has never recovered. In the minds of much of the population of this minority-majority state, the GOP is the party of white people who don’t like non-white people, a branding that — fair or not — repulses most minority voters and no small number of white voters as well.

Subsequent Democratic Presidential candidates have not even bothered to campaign in California; why should they? They need only stop by to gather big campaign contributions that would have gone to Republicans in prior eras. Traditional Republicans are neutered in the state legislature and have no chance in the gubernatorial race either. The only Republican Governor since Wilson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, won by packaging himself as a post-partisan figure and following it through by rejecting many of the national GOP’s key positions.

The California lesson for the national GOP? Racially divisive appeals to alienated white voters can work, perhaps especially in a mid-term election. Indeed, doubling down on white voters may well work nationally in 2014. But pursuing such short-term electoral rewards is a route to long-term political oblivion in an increasingly diverse America.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

26 thoughts on “Doubling Down on White Voters: The California Experience”

  1. “Arnold Schwarzenegger .. won by packaging himself as a post-partisan figure …”
    Agreed about the skilful packaging, but was that all there was to it? Is there any reason to think that Arnie deep down hates gays and denies climate change?

    1. Actually, Schwarzenegger won because of the way our recall laws were structured, which allowed him to win without a Republican primary. That was the only way a Republican could possibly win. He is the exception that proves the rule.

      1. Unfortunately, the California Republican Party is engaged in serious double-think on that point. The Republicans in the legislature fought Schwarzenegger on most issues for most of his time in office. But they still take his win to mean that they could win with an agenda of all the things that they disagreed with him on.

  2. James–Thus the second half of that sentence by Keith: “…and following it through by rejecting many of the national GOP’s key positions.”

  3. I think that Keith misapprehends the Republican political strategy. I believe it is far less short-sighted than Keith thinks it is–and far more scary. It involves two interlocking components:

    1. Pedal-to-the-metal in 2014 and 2016.
    2. Use otherwise-transient Republican majorities to cement power thereafter. This involves a number of tactics: voter suppression, union busting, judicial appointments, structurally weak government (Southern Constitutionalism), gerrymandering (spatial, ordinal and temporal*), increasing the role of money in politics, etc. The Republicans have been admirably forthright about this agenda: the meaning of their phrase “Constitutional government.” We’ve seen a bit of this in Wisconsin.

    It’s a risky strategy, but not an irrational or short-sighted one. I’m not sure it can work without a Republican president in 2016, and that will be a difficult thing to pull off. (Go Hillary!) Furthermore, it is a “shoot-the-moon” strategy. It must be aggressively executed to work. The more aggressive the execution, the greater the chance of success. However, the more aggressive the execution, the greater cost of failure. Given the chiliastic mindset of Republican voters and many pols, this may look more like a feature than a bug.

    * Ordinal and temporal gerrymandering rely on the belief that Republican voters are more committed than Democratic voters. An example of ordinal gerrymandering is plurality voting; an example of temporal gerrymandering is an off-year election or an off-November election. Temporal gerrymandering is a very common trick in municipal elections.

    1. It is perhaps significant that the california GOP didn’t really have access to redistricting and voter-suppression tools the way that the national GOP does today. For another bellwether example, we can (sadly) look at Texas, where the GOP has gerrymandered a relatively narrow statewide advantage into a filibuster-proof majority that could take decades to undo.

    2. Ebenezer,
      Good points about the Republicans, but your comment illustrates a deeper problem with American politics. You mention nothing at all about the Democrats. The main point being the being the party of “We’re Not Republicans” is pretty weak porridge to motivate voters to get to the polls, as Democrats have found repeatedly. The public itself supports a very liberal social agenda, but you’d hardly know that listening to the Democrats, who are still trying to shave off points in the middle of the road fro traditional Republican voters too appalled at what the party of Lincoln has become.

      If you want to talk demographics, what do the Democrats plan to do other than “more of the above, except Republicans won’t be stealing your Social Security — instead Democrats will be protecting it…” Yeah, once they find their backbone, that’s one possibility, but past performance seems to predict otherwise. Those voices and others in the 99% are a working majority silenced in the press. Yeah, as a “movement” that may seem dead, but I can assure you people are starting to think differently about the role of government for us regular working stiffs. Until the Democrats have something better to show than a press conference criticizing the Republicans, the voters they think should be theirs won’t make enough of a difference at the polls.

      Somehow, I think the Republicans are counting on the Democrats to keep running to the right. That’s why the Republicans think their conservative minority will win, because the Democrats continue to be too gun-shy to stand up and finally work to be a real opposition — and majority.

      1. I agree that the Democratic Party needs an organized Democratic wing. But such a wing can’t think that its job is to win elections–that is a recipe for disaster in first-past-the-post voting, except for very blue districts. Its job, for the time being, is to shift the Overton Window. It can do this in two ways: organized muscle for Democratic candidates, and organized selling of Democratic ideas. An occasional primarying of the worst Democrats is okay, if done very very selectively.

        If the Republicans eventually do self-destruct (no sure thing!), the Democratic Party can then safely split, with the plutocratic Democrats becoming a responsible party of business, and the Democratic Democrats the party of the people. But until then, the Democratic plutocrats and progressives will have to maintain their uneasy alliance, with the plutocrats the senior partners in the deal.

        Of course, the problem is organizing what amounts to a party-within-a-party, much like the Republicans’ Movement conservatives. Obama has constructed the machinery for it, but he is on the plutocrat side himself, so that doesn’t do much good. The steelworkers’ unions made some perfunctory attempts at it, but it seems to have fallen through.

      2. being the being the party of “We’re Not Republicans” is pretty weak porridge to motivate voters to get to the polls

        But that assumes that the Republicans do not continue on their current course of making themselves ever more toxic. And given the hysteria which characterizes their base these days, that seems like a poor assumption.

        It would be one thing to focus on passing legislation that they care about, such as repealing laws that do things that they dislike. (That means pass the bill and move on. Not passing dozens of bills to do the same thing, knowing that they will never get thru the Senate — see ACA repeal.) And meanwhile shutting up about stuff that they know they don’t have to talk about (immigration, abortion, etc.). But that’s not what the Republicans in Congress (not to mention the talking heads outside Congress) are doing. Which means that ever more toxic looks rather likely.

    1. A different faction, who pointed out that Clinton had captured only 46% of the popular vote and may well have lost had Ross Perot not attracted many conservative white voters…

      Keith can’t control other people’s misconceptions. I don’t read Keith as taking any position on the matter — he is simply quoting a contemporary interpretation of the 1992 Presidential election. That Clinton won the election with 46% of the popular vote is a fact. Whether Perot’s presence on the ballot influenced the outcome is a different (and arguable) matter. That some Republicans believed then (and now, for that matter) that Perot cost Bush I the election is also a fact.

      It’s also a fact that that argument was used to argue to drive the GOP into the Bircher ditch in California.

        1. Anonymous above was me.

          The next time the site is upgraded, can we please have cookies or whatever it is that keeps us ID’d back. I forgot that I had to fill in the blanks…

        2. Anonymous discerned your intent correctly, and I am not surprised by that clarification. I do believe, however, that if you did not consider that Perot theory to be at least highly plausible — which it isn’t — you should have phrased the point so as to distance yourself from it more clearly. Readers whose memories do not go back that far could have been misled.

          1. I hear what you are saying Ken, “pointed out” can be read to suggest that I consider something a fact when it is speculation by the people I am describing. It would have been better to have said “argued” and I even had that in a draft but changed it for writing style (I like to vary word choice and I described the other side as having “argued” in the prior sentence).

            Above I have now edited the post slightly at this point to try to stick to observables within that sentence without implying that I know what would have happened if Perot had not run, because of course I don’t.

  4. “In the minds of much of the population of this minority-majority state, the GOP is the party of white people who don’t like non-white people….”. Of course, in the minds of members of CA GOP, they like all people*.

    1. One’d think, or like to think, that members of the California GOP “like all people.”

      But they don’t. There’s a bunch of Republicans, maybe most, who don’t simply disagree with this or that view held by Hispanics, they’ve basically come to dislike Hispanics and see no reason to conceal the fact. Mexicans come to the US to steal jobs and get on welfare, you can see them hanging around on corners instead of looking for work liking normal people; they don’t speak English, they have dog fights and cock fights and cripple horses when they race them and the police look the other way instead of enforcing the laws, and NAFTA lets them drive ratty falling-apart trucks with no insurance on our highways, and they don’t even try to learn English and we shouldn’t be wasting our tax dollars putting their brats in our schools and universities, and have I mentioned they don’t even speak English, they just jabber away in Spanish even when you’re practically standing on top of them and have to shout to get them to pay attention, and if we didn’t have better border controls they’d bring in all their stupid relatives and parents and grandparents so they could get welfare, and why can’t they emigrate legally like people from England or Canada, no they have to break the law from the start! And did I mention they don’t speak English?

      It ain’t policy, IOW, it’s become personal. Which is, of course, visible to Hispanics, who tend to see that sort of diatribe as racism, directed at them, rather than high level dispassionate discussion of public policy. Summing up, California Republicans dug a big big hole for themselves in the eyes of most voters, and they really like it in that hole, and they don’t want to climb out and make friends with Hispanics, no matter what some political tacticians are telling them to do. And I suspect a generation or more will pass before the country changes enough for most of those Republicans to be electable again.

      Let us not weep.

      1. I did not really have a good understanding of the California GOP until recently. The father of one of my daughter’s classmates worked in the Bush administration for about 4 years. He had been active as a member of the California GOP prior to that time, and he happens to be Hispanic. So he went back after the failure of immigration reform (which might have been one of his political briefs in the WH). He became a PR person for the California Republican Party, which lasted for about two years until he found a position in a “nonpartisan” think tank. I figured all of this out because he was the guy that the press would go to when, for instance, the OC Republican Ladies Club put out an e-mail joke that went public, about changing the dollar bill to show a picture of Obama eating watermelon. They had actually drawn a mock up and it was about as racist as you might imagine. I still don’t quite understand how he ended up in the Republican Party to begin with, but I figured that after a short time back in the state post-Obama, it became too difficult to pretend that the OC incident was just an aberration.

        I am not weeping for him or for them, but I am weeping for us, that our progress as a nation has been so stymied by deliberate appeals to tribal identity.

  5. I think sorting plays a large role here, too. The kind of Republicanism that has a chance in Los Angeles and maybe even San Fran (business friendly, anti-public employee union, trimming gov’t regulations, etc.) just isn’t what Republicans in the outlying areas want. Instead, they elect hard right types who simply do not speak to the interests of urban folks (of any color). Combine that with the national faces and positions of the Republican party and it is VERY rare for a Californian to hear a Republican pitch that is modestly to the right of elected Democrats.

    1. I too might like to see this farce of non-partisan local elections go away. I think. I’m actually not sure. In little towns, it might make a whole lot of sense. In LA, it seems to me it contributes to voter apathy and the impoverished discourse (or maybe it’s a non-existent discourse).

      I wouldn’t normally think partisanship had benefits and it feels strange to say it, but maybe sometimes it does.

      Btw, I do not concede that regulatory efficiency is a Republican value. We all hate *unnecessary* red tape. And we all like business too. (Now, on unions, there’s probably a split.)

  6. I’ve always suspected the Electoral College plays a big, usually negative role here, in that lots of people aren’t motivated to vote. This isn’t to say that Republicans would be legitimately competitive if they actively targeted the state, but they’d almost have to do better. And with that, they’d probably have a stronger bench and thus a strong party, helping that at all levels.

    This would apply to Democrats in other states, too.

    All the more reason for getting rid of the Electoral College, I’d say.

  7. While I do feel a tiny bit sorry for the non-insane members of the Cali GOP, I am semi-glad to see it getting what it deserves (though on balance, it might have been nicer to have had a GOP that wasn’t racist, since I think having no real opp is making our Dems intellectually flabby. That and term limits.)

    I can imagine a worse outcome, which would have involved splitting off conservative Latinos from black people. IIRC, and I think I do, in the early days of even the most shameless GOP drives (and there was more than one — they also got rid of affirmative action in our universities, which is another interesting story), you’d see poll results with large chunks of Latinos saying, “sounds okay to me.” Probably because the efforts would be carefully phrased to seem innocuous. It would take weeks of debate before many Latinos finally figured out what was being done, and then of course they rejected it. Then eventually they figured out that this wasn’t a accident, since it kept happening, and now, perhaps like Asian-Am voters?, there is a longlasting distrust.

    So the bad reputation is well-deserved. But I can’t really be happy about it either. What with Prop. 13 too, and the recession, so much damage has been done here. We are in quite a hole. I am not sure the DP is sufficiently long-term focused to do what needs to be done. It is a big problem.

    1. Should that say, “mistrust?” That’s the hay fever talking!

      Ebbie, thanks for “chiliastic,” my word of the day!

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