Presidential Politics And Election Returns
Last Updated July 8, 2003
California, which in the 1970s and 1980s was said to have established a lock on the presidency for the Republicans, now seems heavily Democratic in presidential politics. Actually, California was not that heavily Republican: Republicans won handily when they nominated Californians--Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984--but they won only narrowly in 1976 and 1988 when they didn't. Then, in the 1990s it was the Democrats who seemed to have a lock on California and the presidency. Now, after the 2000 election, it is apparent that you can win the presidency without California--indeed, if George W. Bush's percentages rise uniformly in every state in 2004, he could win the presidency with 373 electoral votes without carrying California. California's solid Democratic status owes something to its increasing number of Latino voters and their distaste, rooted in California politics, for Republicans; it owes much to Californians' affection for and assiduous cultivation by Bill Clinton; it owes much as well to the liberal attitude on cultural issues here--abortion and gun control and the environment--which has trumped any desire for lower taxes. In the 1990s Americans in the nation's largest metropolitan areas trended toward Clinton-Gore Democrats, and three-quarters of California voters live in the large metropolitan areas centered on Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego.
Still, California seems just too big to ignore. In 2000 it cast 54 electoral votes; in 2004 it will cast 55, 20% of those necessary to win. Despite the Democrats' sweep here in 1998, despite Clinton's and Al Gore's cultivation of the state, despite daunting polls, George W. Bush made a serious attempt to carry California. California Republicans had been tired of raising money only to see it spent elsewhere. So Bush enlisted businessman Gerald Parsky to raise $20 million and kept his promise to spend it all in California. On top of that, Bush spent two days in the last two weeks in California, precious time which, if spent in Wisconsin, Iowa, Oregon and New Mexico, all of which he lost by 1%, might have made the controversy over the vote in Florida irrelevant. It mattered not. The Gore campaign coolly assessed its prospects here, and spent nothing; and Gore carried the state by the unambiguous margin of 54%-42%, with another 4% for Ralph Nader. Will the Bush campaign target California in 2004? It is daunting to leave 55 votes uncontested, and the Democratic nominee will not be the candidate of the incumbent party, or a popular incumbent president, in a time of apparent peace and apparent prosperity. Bush strategists have some reason to believe that their candidate will be significantly stronger among California Hispanics than he was in 2000. And he seems likely to be more popular among Jews, who cast 5% of the votes, only 15% of whom voted for him in 2000. He could probably improve his 50%-46% showing in Heartland California. But the strong opposition to military action in Iraq in Coastal California in early 2003 suggests that his chances in California may not be good. The Bush campaign seems sure to be very well financed and the Bush campaign may choose to spend money here in the hope of forcing Democrats to spend their scarcer money on defending what is in effect their home base. No Democrat can win the presidency without carrying California; Bush has and can.
Some can still recall when California's June primary was the national tie-breaker. This state was the center of national attention when Nelson Rockefeller lost here to Barry Goldwater in 1964, when Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy slugged it out in 1968--Kennedy won and was murdered by a Palestinian terrorist on primary night--and when George McGovern edged Hubert Humphrey in 1972. California was all the more important because it was winner-take-all: Voters chose between slates pledged to each candidate, and whoever won a plurality won every vote in the largest delegation in each party's convention. But since the 1980s nominations have been sewed up a lot earlier than June, and California for some time was an irrelevancy.
For 1996 California moved its presidential primary from the first week in June to March 26; that was still too late to make any difference. So in 2000 it moved it to March 7. That was still a problem. California's all-party primary, adopted by referendum, allowed anyone, not just registered Democrats or Republicans, to vote for a Democrat or a Republican. But Secretary of State Bill Jones, a Republican, came up with a computer-assisted double counting procedure, which would allow a total of just registered Democrats' votes to be counted for Democratic delegates. Under those rules, Al Gore won 34% of all votes and 80% of those cast for a Democrat; George W. Bush won 29% and John McCain 23% of all votes. Among those voting for Republicans, Bush led McCain 52%-43%. This is not a result that mattered, as it turned out, and it was conducted under a system that is now extinct: The Supreme Court, in response to a challenge from four of California's political parties, outlawed the all-party primary (a longstanding institution in Washington and Alaska) in June 2000.
|2000 Presidential Vote|
|2000 Republican Primary|
|2000 Democratic Primary|
|1996 Presidential Vote|
For 1992 and 1996 presidential results in California, please see the Almanac 2000 online.
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