California gives GOP the blues

Decker is a Times staff writer.

The cobalt blue of California’s electoral map masks conflicting hues of political ideology, and Tuesday’s election results were an emphatic reminder. Barack Obama won the biggest victory in modern state history, smashing the record set in 1964 in Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide election, but not a single Republican member of Congress was defeated.

Voters sided with animal-rights activists, but not with proponents of gay marriage. They narrowly are supporting a redistricting measure backed by the Republican governor, and opposed a measure he endorsed to inform parents of a minor’s abortion.

Those unpredictable decisions by voters, however, were accompaniments to the election’s main theme: the demographic and ideological shifts that have delivered the state into Democratic hands and demonstrated anew the tough road ahead for the Republican minority.


In growth areas such as Riverside and San Bernardino counties, where the GOP once planned to mount a statewide resurgence, the Democratic nominee it derided as a far-left liberal and socialist was winning, the beneficiary of the fractured local economy.

There and in the other key electoral counties in California, including the most populous ones, Democrats performed better than their registration levels would indicate. In Los Angeles County, where Democrats hold a 28 percentage-point edge, Obama was winning by 40 points. In San Francisco, where Democrats hold a 47-point margin, he was winning by 70 points.

Moreover, Democrats were building on furious registration gains won in the run-up to the party’s competitive primary and increased during the nationally enthralling general election.

In 24 of California’s 58 counties, Democrats held the registration advantage in the 2004 presidential contest. They have bigger margins now in 21. In the 31 counties where Republicans outnumbered Democrats, their margins have slumped in 20 and grown in only four. In three counties, including San Bernardino, control has flipped from Republican to Democratic over the four years.

“You can’t argue with some of the numbers,” said state GOP Vice Chairman Thomas G. Del Beccaro, who nonetheless insisted that Democratic gains were cyclical and may be reversed if Obama were to prove less popular as president than he was as a candidate.

“There are still a number of issues on which Californians have rather conservative views and the successful party going forward needs to tap into those views,” he said.

Though Republicans insisted that the solution was recommitting to basic tenets, Democrats were hopeful that the gains will transfer to future races. Much of their effort to register voters was aimed at grooming a generation that would enter the electorate as Democrats and stay that way.

On Tuesday, that labor’s first fruits: Among first-time voters, Obama won 83%, according to a National Election Pool exit poll. Four years ago, Democrat John Kerry won 59% of first-time voters.

But Democrats were not taking that change for granted. “This is a generational shift,” said California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres, as he celebrated Obama’s win Tuesday night. “A generational shift requires responsibility on our part to maintain that support. And that comes in deeds and performance. . . . If we betray that trust, we don’t deserve to be reelected.”

The full scope of Tuesday’s results resided in bins at county registrars’ offices, where at least 1.6 million ballots remained uncounted as elections officials dealt with the overload caused by high-turnout contests. Exact turnout will not be known until those ballots are tabulated, but statewide, the participation rate appears to have been the highest in decades.

Regardless of the final results, Obama’s victory was sweeping. By late Wednesday, he was leading John McCain by a 24-point margin, more than double the usual win by Democrats since 1992, when Bill Clinton’s victory marked the state’s return to Democratic control in presidential contests. In the years since World War II, the previous record for a presidential margin in California was the 18.3 percentage points run up by Johnson over Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964. Adding insult to injury for Republicans: Much of the California Obama campaign’s recent efforts went to winning neighboring Nevada -- which he did.

Former GOP state Senate leader Jim Brulte said Obama’s showing was the result of a horrendous year for Republicans and steady increases in turnout among Latino voters in particular. On Tuesday, the proportion of black voters also rose dramatically.

“The percentage of voting population is beginning to mirror the percentage of diverse population in the state,” he said. “Those are changes that have short-term and potentially long-term implications.”

Still, Brulte said he was “stunned” at Obama’s margin, and particularly his showing in the Inland Empire.

In 2000, George W. Bush beat Al Gore by single digits in Riverside and San Bernardino counties; by 2004, he defeated Kerry by double digits in both counties. As of late Wednesday, however, Obama was winning by five points in San Bernardino County and just over three points in Riverside County.

The Democratic registration effort gets much of the credit. In Riverside County, the Republican advantage of more than 12 points in 2004 was whittled in half by last month, when final pre-election registration numbers were released. San Bernardino County went from a 4-point Republican edge to a narrow Democratic one.

Much of the change stems from the economy. In counties where new housing tracts once signaled toeholds on the American dream, foreclosures are rampant, and the economic fallout is raining over the area’s economy and politics.

“In the housing industry, we have a depression in this region; in the car industry, we have a depression. There’s a significant, significant problem in this region,” said Brulte, who said a local barber recently told him business was off by 40%.

The foundering economy lifted Obama’s fortunes in California. According to the exit poll, McCain and Obama split the votes of those who said they were better off than four years ago. But Obama won 80% of the votes of those who thought they were worse off. Unfortunately for McCain, the latter group was almost twice the size of the former.


Times staff writers Jeff Gottlieb and Phil Willon contributed to this report.