It may be small comfort for Democrats who are devastated that Hillary Clinton lost her bid for the White House, but the former secretary of State managed to do something no Democrat has done since the Great Depression — win Orange County.
Clinton beat Republican Donald Trump by nearly 5 points, or 39,000 votes, in the county that has long served as a national symbol for the GOP, the home to Richard Nixon and the cradle of Ronald Reagan’s conservatism.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the last Democratic presidential candidate to take Orange County, in his 1936 contest against challenger Alf Landon.
This time, with 395,801 votes, Clinton took nearly half of the total, while Trump won 356,892 votes, or 45%.
Because of its deep Republican roots, Orange County is the most prominent red county to turn blue. But it was not alone — similar shifts occurred in other large, affluent suburban counties such as those outside Atlanta and Houston.
Although these counties flipping did not affect Trump’s path to the White House, they could signal trouble for the GOP. Republicans have long counted on conservative voters in suburbs to offset the huge troves of Democratic votes in the nation’s cities.
In Orange County, the gap between Republicans and Democrats has been narrowing for years. In the mid-1990s, Republicans outnumbered Democrats 52% to 32%. By 2012, the year Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama in Orange County by seven percentage points, the registered Republicans had fallen to 41%, with 32% Democrats.
Now, of the county’s 1.5 million voters, about 38% are Republicans, and 34% are Democrats.
Despite the greater number of registered Republicans, the county voted blue Tuesday night because it is home to a large concentration of the two demographics that exit polls showed to be most troubling for Trump: Minorities and college-educated white women.
One of those women, Kris Murray, an Anaheim city councilwoman and registered Republican who works for an energy and engineering firm, declined to say whom she voted for — but it wasn’t Trump, she said.
“I did not support him, and many conservatives I spoke with did not support him, because of the divisive rhetoric,” said Murray, 48. “Some of the practices that were employed didn’t mirror my ethical or moral values.”
Some Orange County voters were shocked that the area voted blue.
“I had heard people saying they did not want Bill Clinton back in the White House — that they didn’t want Hillary in office because of the FBI investigation,” said Mary Frances Kirkpatrick, 50, of Laguna Niguel. “People whispered that they were going to vote for Trump.”
Jeff Corless, a GOP political strategist and ardent Trump supporter, said the GOP needs to learn lessons from Clinton’s win in the county, where he was born and still lives.
“She won Orange County because this county has been urbanizing for the past decade, has become more diverse and the registration gap between Republicans and Democrats has been closing.”
Shawn Steel, a Republican National Committeeman and staunch Trump supporter, had a different explanation. He argues that the middle class that would be the GOP base has been driven from the county and the state by burdensome regulations.
“Younger folks with families can’t buy their parents’ homes, they don’t have middle-class jobs or upper-middle-class jobs, they’re getting the hell out of town. That’s my base,” Steel said. “Sharp young entrepreneurs can’t make it in California because of the stifling economic, anti-business climate.”
There was fear that Trump’s candidacy would damage Republican officeholders in competitive races in Orange County, but most held their jobs.
The county’s voting pattern hardly surprised Yvon Nguyen, a Yorba Linda marketing CEO and a registered Democrat who says party loyalty does not drive her pick for president.
“I think Orange County is very progressive and we have a lot of young professionals who, like me, choose to look at the issues, the person and the qualifications before we vote. It doesn’t matter what party we’re from,” said Nguyen, 33.
Lucy Dunn, a registered Republican and Orange County business leader who served in the administration of former Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, said she did not vote for either Trump or Clinton, but she was not surprised by Clinton’s strong showing in Orange County.
“Demography is destiny and in Orange County, we are a minority-majority. There is no ethnic group that dominates,” she said. “It’s like living in the most interesting microcosm of the United Nations.”