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Sunday, June 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Clinton Landslide in California Offers Glimpse Into Future of Politics

The old adage "As California goes, so goes the nation" didn't fit the November election, with many traditionally blue states going for Donald Trump while Hillary Clinton enjoyed the biggest win by a Democrat in California history. But some experts believe it's only a matter of time before most states become more like the Golden State, politically speaking.

(CN) – With the 2016 presidential election over, political doctors are trotting out their diagnoses for why everyone was so wrong and it’s Donald Trump planning his transition into the White House instead of Hillary Clinton.

Few of the pundits that watch politics gave Trump a chance. They were wrong.

Following the outcome, a raft of theories have been floated as to what led to the result:

Clinton was a flawed candidate who failed to generate excitement of her base.

FBI Director James Comey tipped the scales by sending Congress a letter regarding the Clinton email investigation — an election topic that dogged Clinton from her announcement all the way to her surprising defeat.

It’s the mainstream media’s fault, concentrating too much on concocted scandals with thin substance, like Hillary Clinton’s email server or the Clinton Foundation.

Russia’s hack of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s emails – and Wikileaks subsequent dissemination – provided enough ammunition for the opposition to paint Clinton as out of touch, an ally of Wall Street despite public professions to the contrary, and more crafty politician than genuine article.

The gutting of the Voting Rights Act by a Supreme Court dominated by Republican appointees worked, and the suppression of black and other minority votes in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania was enough to turn the tables.

Third party candidates like Jill Stein of the Green Party and Libertarian Gary Johnson, took votes away from Clinton and cost her the election.

White working-class people in the deindustrialized Midwest, who suffered through the greatest economic recession since the Great Depression and saw globalism shipping their jobs to foreign locales where labor is cheap and labor laws lax, were tired of a condescending coastal liberal elite who ignored their suffering and instead lectured them about how privileged they are.

Or alternatively, it’s just plain racism, as white people felt America becoming more multicultural, more diverse, incorporating black, Latino and Native perspectives – and they rebelled, eager to reassert their rapidly eroding cultural supremacy.

For many experts, the answer is all of the above.

“I think I tend to see a combination of these factors at work,” said Daniel Wirls, a political science professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

But one question that lingers is why California remained essentially immune from all these factors, voting for Hillary Clinton by a wider margin than any other state. Clinton’s rout of Trump in the Golden State represents the widest margin of victory a Democratic presidential candidate has enjoyed over a Republican in California’s modern political era.

But it’s difficult to state what happened in California without first parsing what painted traditionally blue states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania red in 2016.

A Republican had not carried Wisconsin and won its 10 electoral votes since 1984, when then-incumbent President Ronald Reagan thumped Walter Mondale by 10 percent.

As a point of comparison, President Barack Obama won the Badger State by beating John McCain by 14 percent in 2008, and beat Mitt Romney by 7 points in 2012.

The Clinton camp evidently felt so sure about Wisconsin that they had their candidate visit the state exactly zero times.

Similarly, Pennsylvania hadn’t swung red since George H.W. Bush squeaked out a win against Michael Dukakis in 1988 by a mere 1.5 percent. Obama beat Romney by almost 6 points in the last election.


The elder Bush also marked the last time Michigan went Republican in a major presidential election. Even John Kerry took The Mitten in 2004 by 5 percent.

These three states, ostensibly part of the so-called “Blue Firewall,” helped swing the election to Trump and sent vast numbers of political pundits hungry for answers to Amazon.com looking for the book “Hillbilly Elegy,” by J.D. Vance.

But for many experts the outcome wasn’t surprising.

“If you take a blank-slate Republican and a blank-slate Democrat, the Republicans were likely to win, just due to economic conditions,” Graeme Bouschey, associate professor at University of California, Irvine said.

But more than that, he said, look at the states themselves. The Michigan Legislature and its governor’s office are dominated by Republicans. Wisconsin recently hosted one of the largest eviscerations of labor unions in the nation’s history.

“I think the Republican political machine in those states was stronger than anticipated,” Bouschey said.

While pundits scramble to explain what happened astride the Great Lakes, one place the Republican political machine has utterly failed to reach is California.

Despite the unpopularity of the Democratic candidate, her lack of any real policy prescriptions beyond that of not being Donald Trump, California went more blue than it ever had before.

Clinton garnered 8.7 million votes in California in 2016, winning 62 percent of the votes cast.  Obama only earned 7.8 million votes in 2012, winning 60 percent of the vote.

Even in 2008, when America was exasperated with Republican leadership after the many and varied blunders of the George W. Bush administration, Obama only received 8.2 million votes, accounting for 61 percent.

While some will assert that California has always leaned blue, giving it immunity from the forces that sent the Midwest from blue to red, California’s last flirtation with a Republican is actually more recent than Wisconsin and on par with Michigan and Pennsylvania: Californians chose the elder Bush over Dukakis in 1988.

Before that, California swung red consistently, voting for Richard Nixon – a former congressman and senator representing the Golden State – twice, choosing Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter, and twice giving the nod to their former governor Ronald Reagan.

So why is California so stridently blue in 2016?

According to Bouschey, the left should take thought, while the right should take care.

“California is a cautionary tale for the Republican Party,” he said.

California politicians ran on the themes Trump espoused on the campaign trail – fervid anti-immigration, English-only policies aimed directly at marginalizing the burgeoning Latino population, a tough on crime platform that ushered in the three-strikes policy and a host of other platforms – in the not-so-distant past.

Former Gov. Pete Wilson ran on a subtly ethno-nationalist platform in the early 1990s and implemented a lot of policies, particularly on immigration and criminal justice, that are now nearly universally derided in California.

“Some say Wilson awoke the sleeping giant of the Latino vote and that might well be,” Bouschey said. “But his policies, while temporarily successful, were immoderate. Whether it was abortion or criminal justice, his views were not as moderate as the California voter.”

And Wilson’s two terms as governor cost Republicans dearly.


“What emerged in place of these policies is a very strong Democratic control of the state,” Bouschey said.

With the election this past month, Democrats now have a supermajority in both legislative houses in California. Gov. Jerry Brown, also a Democrat, has two years left in office and the liberal hold on the state only appears to be strengthening. Orange County, long held as a bastion of California Republicanism, went for Clinton in 2016 by a whopping 9 points.

Even in rural areas like Nevada County, Clinton eked out wins. By narrower margins, but victories nonetheless.

While Bouschey sketched out how California could be ahead of the curve and show what will happen if Republicans govern in an immoderate fashion that is out of step with the moderate views of most Americans, he also conceded California is unique.

“A potential problem for the state politically as much as culturally is that it is so blue, it is out of alignment with a country that has elected a unified Republican government,” he said.

Why is California so blue?

Part of what separates the state from places like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan is that its economy is more diversified, more forward-thinking, more resilient.

“You have a remarkably resilient economy and that’s reflected in the state budget,” said Wirls with UC Santa Cruz.

Indeed, while California was hit probably harder than anywhere in the nation by the real estate bubble bust, its recovery is ahead of places that rely on traditional manufacturing jobs that continue to erode.

“California has a remarkable diversity of economic powerhouses, whether the entertainment industry or Silicon Valley, and it has no shortage of the military industrial complex,” Wirls said.

However, not all experts are convinced that economic anxiety is behind the vote for Trump.

Michael Telser, another associate professor of political science at University of California, Irvine, said the more salient explanation for why Trump is the current President-elect of the United States is race-based.

“Support for Trump was more tightly linked to racial resentment than support for John McCain and Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012, respectively – even after controlling for party and ideology,” Tesler wrote in the Monkey Cage blog for the Washington Post.

But why is California immune from racial resentment? After all, places like California and New Mexico – which also went to Clinton – are far more affected by immigration than places like Michigan and Wisconsin.

Bouschey points to a theory in political science called threat versus contact. Contact with different races and cultures leads to the diminishment of prejudice and resentment, while the threat of such differences leads to a more tribal approach, according to the hypothesis.

Tesler said this accounts for why states with a large number of non-educated white voters aligned with Trump’s politics.

“Racial and ethnocentric attitudes were deeply implicated in Donald Trump’s remarkable rise to the White House,” he wrote. “Racial resentment, anti-Muslim attitudes and white identity were all much stronger predictors of support for Trump in the 2016 primaries than they were for prior Republican nominees.”

But this swing may be short-lived.

Clinton lost Arizona by just 3 points. Mitt Romney beat Obama there by a 10-point margin. Clinton also lost Texas by 9 points, but that margin has shrunk considerably over the last 16 years with Obama losing by 12 points each time.

Part of this may be due to changing demographics.

“Demography is destiny in many ways,” Bouschey said.

And with the entire nation’s demographic shift, the ability to leverage white resentment into a stint at the White House will eventually come to an end.

“California is what the country is going to be in 20 or 30 years,” Bouschey said.

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