When Donald Trump or Ted Cruz proposes increasing the enforcement of immigration law, outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and NPR run stories warning about the legacy of Pete Wilson, California’s governor from 1991 to 1999. The message is fairly consistent: Strenuously opposing illegal immigration might deliver short-term benefits for Republicans, but it spells death in the long term. Many Republican consultants look to California and dread the prospect of the GOP’s fighting too hard against illegal immigration.
Did Pete Wilson kill the Republican party in California by supporting Proposition 187, a 1994 referendum that would have limited illegal immigrants’ access to government services? A lot rides on that question. Many campaign consultants, journalists, and activists assume that Wilson’s full throated opposition to illegal immigration locked the GOP into a demographic death-spiral in the Golden State. As a result of this assumption, Wilson is invoked whenever Republicans fail to support a “comprehensive immigration reform” bill, such as the Gang of Eight’s, or whenever they propose cracking down on illegal immigration.
This narrative has incredible staying power and national implications. However, there’s a slight problem with the story: It’s not exactly true. Or at least there’s a lot of evidence that it radically simplifies and misidentifies some of the challenges facing the Republican party in California and elsewhere.
To take the first problem with the conventional argument: California might have been a lean-Republican state on the presidential level in the decades after World War II, but on the state and local levels, Democrats had considerable strength there. Since 1960, Democrats have continually controlled both branches of the state legislature with only a few minor interruptions, including brief periods during the gubernatorial administrations of Ronald Reagan and Wilson.
Across all ethnicities — and not just immigrant communities — the state has trended Democratic over the past 24 years.
In many respects, 1994 was the post-Reagan peak for California Republicans, so analyses that use the 1994 results as a baseline exaggerate the decline of support for Republicans in the years after 1994. For example, in the Wall Street Journal, Jason Riley notes that, after the 1994 election, Republicans “lost state assembly seats for three successive elections.” That’s certainly true. However, the 1994 election gave Republicans only the second majority in the state assembly that they had won since 1960, so a fall-off might not be that surprising. Throughout most of the 2000s, Republicans had roughly as many seats in the state assembly and the state senate as they did in the 1980s. Republicans are stronger in the state legislature now than they were in the mid to late ’70s. (And, if losing state-assembly seats in three elections in a row is a sign of how bad Pete Wilson’s administration was, what are we to make of the fact that Republicans lost state-assembly seats for four elections in a row after the 1968 election, in the middle of Reagan’s first term?)
Obviously, the Republican party is weaker now in California than it was in 1994, but it was also weaker at the statewide level in 1984 than in 1994. In terms of representation in the state legislature and major statewide constitutional offices, the GOP was about as strong during Arnold Schwarzenegger’s time as governor as it was during much of the 1980s. This is not to be Pollyannish (as I’ll hypothesize below, Republicans might be in an even tougher position than conventional wisdom holds), but the comparative fall of the California GOP should not be exaggerated.
The GOP’s performance in federal elections in California tells a grim story, but this dismal performance needs to be situated in context. In the ten presidential elections between 1952 and 1988, Republican presidential contenders won the state nine times. However, a likely part of the reason for that number is that, for seven of those ten elections, a Californian (either Nixon or Reagan) was on the ticket.
For over 20 years now, California has been solidly Democratic at the presidential level, but the turning point is more likely 1992 than 1994. In 1992, Bill Clinton beat George H. W. Bush by about 13 points in California, and, in 1996 he beat Bob Dole by about . . . 13 points. Granted, the presence of Ross Perot complicates things, but even if only 20 percent of Ross Perot’s California voters would have supported Bill Clinton in 1992 — and that’s probably an undercount — Clinton would have gotten a higher percentage of the vote in California than any Democratic presidential nominee since Lyndon Johnson. In fact, the Democratic presidential candidate’s margin of victory in the Golden State never rose above 13 points until 2008, when the financial crisis hit. Looking at presidential-election results, we see that California exhibited decisive steps in the Democratic direction in 1992 (to lean-Democratic) and 2008 (to solid Democratic). Prior to 2008, Republican presidential candidates kept Democrats from expanding on their 1992 margin, which may imply that 1994 was not that big a turning point on the presidential level.
Drilling down into the demographic details of exit polls suggests that Pete Wilson did not cause the Hispanic vote to shift against the Republican presidential candidate in a radical way. Depending on the exit poll, Michael Dukakis beat George H. W. Bush among California Hispanics by between 30 and 40 points. Bill Clinton beat Bush by about 42 points in 1992 (potentially by almost 50 points). Clinton beat Bob Dole by about 48 points in 1996 — an increase from 1992, but not exactly a tremendous one. By the 2004 election, the California Hispanic voter gap was around the mid-30s on the presidential level (Kerry beat Bush by a bit over 30 points within the demographic).
So, a decade after Proposition 187 supposedly destroyed the Republican party on a presidential level, the Republican standard-bearer in 2004 scored about as well as, if not a little better than, Republican candidates before 1994 in terms of performance with the Hispanic vote. With 27 percent of the California Hispanic vote, Mitt Romney got a larger portion of Hispanic voters in California than the Republican presidential nominee has managed in any cycle since 1992 (with the exception of 2004).
This brings us to another important point: the rate of ethnic polarization among California’s electorate. If Republicans are losing votes among all demographic groups, looking at the GOP’s performance with only one demographic group can give the mistaken impression that Republicans suffer only because of their low standing with that one group. In actuality, the Republicans would be suffering owing to their poor performance with the electorate as a whole (which includes but is not limited to that group).
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As the graph below shows, ethnic polarization did spike in the 1994 and 1998 gubernatorial races. The white–Hispanic gap in favor of Wilson jumped from 21 points in 1990 (54 percent of whites to 33 percent of Hispanics) to 35 points in 1994 (60 percent of whites to 25 percent of Hispanics). In the 1998 governor’s race, Dan Lungren had a 29-point white–Hispanic gap. However, since then, the gap has floated between the mid 20s and high teens. In the three most recent gubernatorial elections, white–Hispanic electoral polarization has been lower than it was in the 1980s.
Exit polls at the Senate and presidential levels also do not show a significant growth in ethnic polarization since 1980.
The 1988 and 2012 California presidential races have identical white–Hispanic gaps: 26 points. The chart above does show a seeming dip in the white–Hispanic gap in the 1992 election, when 35 percent of California whites backed Bush while 23 percent of Hispanics supported him. This gap then grew in 1996 to 21 points (43 percent of whites and 22 percent of Hispanics). However, we should be wary about reading too much into that shift, some of which might be explained by Ross Perot. In 1992, Hispanic voters were 23 points more supportive of Clinton than white voters were; he won 42 percent of whites and 65 percent of Hispanics. By 1996, Clinton did 25 points better among the Hispanic vote than the white vote (earning 45 percent of the white vote and 70 percent of the Hispanic vote).
The white-Hispanic gap in favor of the Democratic candidate, then, remained constant from 1992 to 1996; Hispanics and whites trended Democratic at roughly the same rate. In the presidential elections between 2000 and 2012, the gap between white and Hispanic voters was lower than or equal to what it had been in the 1980s.
As the following graph shows, ethnic polarization has not substantially increased in U.S. Senate races in California over the past 40 years. In fact, ethnic polarization has probably decreased since the Senate races in the 1970s and 1980s.
Another way of exploring ethnic polarization in California is to compare its electoral dynamics to those of other states. If Pete Wilson had noticeably poisoned the well among California’s Hispanics, we would expect Hispanics in California to tilt even more Democratic relative to their state population than Hispanics in other states have tilted. However, there is little evidence that they did. In California in 2014, Hispanics were 13 points more supportive of the Democratic candidate for governor than was the electorate as a whole — less than the margin in gubernatorial general elections in Texas and New York. In 2014, the 19-point gap between Hispanics and whites in the California gubernatorial race was smaller than it was in the gubernatorial races in Texas (28 points) and Florida (20 points). Texas is often touted as the counter-example to California in terms of Republican outreach to Hispanics (George W. Bush opposed Proposition 187), but the white–Hispanic voting gap is often larger in Texas than in California.
The graph below suggests that, in presidential races, California does not have a particularly large gap between whites and Hispanics relative to other states. In 2012, Romney received 53 percent of the white vote and 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in California, for a white-Hispanic gap of 26 points. This gap is smaller in California than in many other states:
On the presidential level, Hispanics and whites had less of a divergence in California in 2012 than they did in a number of other states, including New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Virginia. In Nevada, that gap was 32 points. In Arizona, it was 40 points. The white–Hispanic gap in California was smaller than in a number of other states in 2004 and 2008, too. These numbers imply that, at the presidential level, California’s Hispanic voters are not uniquely hostile to the Republican party relative to Hispanic voters in the nation as a whole. (A similar trend seems to hold true in Senate races as well, suggesting that the ethnic polarization of the California electorate is not as great as in other states.)
Now, it’s possible that Republicans were growing in strength among Hispanics prior to 1994, and one could argue that support for Proposition 187 prevented Republicans from expanding with this demographic. However, the evidence to support these claims is mixed. It seems possible that Republicans were gaining support among some California Hispanics in the late 1980s. For instance, in one study the percentage of Hispanics identifying as Republican was found to have climbed from 17 to 23 between 1986 and 1990. However, 1990 seems to mark the end of that trend. By 1992, only 12 percent of California Hispanics identified as Republican.
Proposition 187 does not explain why California’s white voters, too, have also drifted away from the GOP.
It’s also possible that Proposition 187 so radically alienated Asian-American voters that they turned their backs on the GOP for good. It’s true that Asian-Americans drifted away from the Republican party in the 1990s, but that drift probably cannot be explained simply by Proposition 187. In 1992, Asian-Americans split their votes between Clinton and Bush (each got 39 percent), and in 1996 Asian-Americans backed Clinton 51–44. However, that shift might have more to do with Clintonian triangulation than Proposition 187: In the 1994 gubernatorial election, Wilson also received 51 percent of the Asian-American vote. Apparently, Asian-American voters did not leave the California GOP because they hated Wilson, who received a higher percentage of the California Asian-American vote than has any Republican presidential candidate since 1992. (On the presidential level, Asian-Americans in California seemed to turn decisively against the GOP in 2000.)
Exit polls, like other polls, are imperfect instruments. However, these surveys suggest that Pete Wilson and Proposition 187 did not destroy the Republican party in California through uniquely alienating Hispanic voters. It’s possible that the campaign for Proposition 187 and other efforts in California, to limit affirmative action and encourage the learning of English, might have damaged the GOP’s reputation with some immigrant communities. However, it is not clear that any such possible damages in reputation translated into a radical shift in the voting preferences of specific ethnic groups in California.
Proposition 187 does not explain why California’s white voters, too, have also drifted away from the GOP. The latest Field poll looked at registered California voters’ impressions of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump, and the numbers are brutal. Cruz and Rubio are at 29 percent and 30 percent approval, respectively, and Trump is at 22 percent; Cruz and Rubio do have substantially lower disapproval ratings than Trump according to this poll. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are at 50 percent and 52 percent approval, respectively.
Rather than being viewed as part of a multi-decade backlash to Proposition 187, the decline in support from California’s Hispanic voters might instead be seen as part of a broader, cross-demographic shift away from the Republican party. In the 1980, 1984, and 1988 presidential elections, Republicans lost Californian Hispanics by an average of around 30 points. In the 2004, 2008, and 2012 elections, they lost this group by an average of 42 points. That twelve-point drop clearly hurt Republicans. However, there has been an even bigger shift among California whites. In the presidential elections from 1980 through 1988, Republicans won the white vote by 24 points on average. In the last three elections, they have won the white vote by an average of two points — a 22-point drop. Republicans have lost ground among California Hispanics, but they have lost even more ground among whites.
Clearly, the Golden State’s turn against the GOP goes much further than Hispanics. Republicans likely need to do better among Hispanics in order to be competitive in California — but they also need to improve among all ethnic groups.
Should Republicans feel relief at the fact that Wilson might not have killed the state GOP? Maybe not. If Proposition 187 did not kill the GOP in California, the Republican party faces a much more complex challenge. Rather than being due solely to a backlash against Proposition 187, the party’s struggles in the Golden State might be connected to larger trends.
Even as immigration is changing California’s population, the state has also undergone a socioeconomic restructuring over the past few decades.
California has experienced a number of architectonic shifts. Owing to a variety of reasons (including the 1986 amnesty, legal immigration, and political mobilization), the number of Hispanic and immigrant voters in California has increased since 1990. According to the American Immigration Council, over 17 percent of California’s registered voters are immigrants. Even as immigration is changing California’s population, the state has also undergone a socioeconomic restructuring over the past few decades. It has become more economically polarized and less middle-class. The end of the Cold War sent shock waves through California’s aerospace and defense industries, and Silicon Valley — with a rather different culture — now serves as a principal economic engine of the state. All these changes have affected the political preferences of the state’s electorate.
If it is the case that the breakdown of the California GOP has more to do with broader socioeconomic trends than with the legacy of Pete Wilson, Republicans will have to think more about how to respond to those trends. Some of that response might include an optimistic, inclusive message on immigration (though having such a message does not preclude also taking effective steps to curtail illegal immigration). However, by itself, that message would likely not be enough, as Republicans’ political trouble in California reaches beyond immigrant communities. Instead, Republicans and conservatives might work to advance policies that will strengthen opportunity for both immigrants and the native-born.Declining wages and troubled economic prospects will hamper the ability of the GOP to advance a limited-government message in California and elsewhere. These numbers suggest that Republicans will likely need to reach out to a variety of groups — blue-collar workers and business owners, recent immigrants and those born here, the young and the aged, suburban communities and inner-city neighborhoods. The fraying of the middle class in California placed increased political pressures on the Republican party, so Republican strategists might need to think about how to restore the middle class. Policies — on immigration and other issues — that undermine opportunity and place further strain on the civic fabric are likely to disappoint further Republican ambitions in California.
Just as the sources of the electoral struggles of the California GOP are complicated, so too might be the solutions to these struggles. But clinging to the comfortable scapegoating of Pete Wilson will inhibit the search for solutions.
A note about sourcing: For years prior to 2006, I draw exit-polling data from the appendix to California after Arnold, a study written by veteran California political analysts Stephen D. Cummings and Patrick Reddy. This appendix synthesizes exit-polling from a variety of sources for any given year. Presidential years are an exception to this: For 1992 and 1996, I use exit polling data from the Voter News Service, an exit-polling consortium formed by a number of major media organizations. For 2004 through 2012, I draw data from the National Election Pool, the successor to the Voter News Service. For the 2000 presidential election, I use data from the Los Angeles Times poll. For races since 2006, I use National Election Pool data.
— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.