For the GOP, California is a deep blue hole

The road to redemption for the Republican Party in California may be even rougher than November's statewide electoral drubbing indicated, as a new Los Angeles Times/USC poll shows a deep reluctance among many voters to side with a GOP candidate and broad swaths of the state holding views on government's role that conflict with Republican tenets.

California voters surveyed in the poll repudiated the party's stance on illegal immigration by endorsing a host of positions intended to make it easier for the undocumented to gain legal status. Their support for same-sex marriage outnumbered that opposing any legal recognition by more than 3 to 1. Californians also endorsed an assertive role for government in protecting minority citizens, regulating corporations and helping the poor and needy, and rejected arguments that an activist role for government had harmed the fiber of American society.

The negative overlay both explained and helped determine the fates of the party's candidates in November. As a GOP tide swept the nation, Republicans here lost all statewide offices, with one contest, for attorney general, still unresolved but leaning toward the Democrat. Republicans here also failed to gain any congressional seats and lost a legislative seat.

Strikingly, almost one in five California voters said they would never cast a ballot for a Republican. Among Latinos, that rose to almost one in three. Only 5% of California voters were as emphatically anti-Democrat.

"I don't know how any Republican thinks they can win in California after looking at this," said GOP pollster Linda DiVall, who with Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg directed the survey for The Times and the USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences.

The party faces a critical collision between its own voters, a minority in California, and those it needs to attract to win. The most faithful Republicans this year — those who voted for both Meg Whitman for governor and Carly Fiorina for Senate — said by a 27-point margin that to be more successful, Republicans should nominate "true conservatives."

But among the majority of voters who spurned Whitman and Fiorina in November — and in whose good graces any future winning candidate would need to be — the results were reversed. Forty-three percent said that future Republican candidates needed to be more moderate. Only 20% said that Republicans should nominate "true conservatives."

As those figures help illustrate, the GOP's difficulties in California rest on two overlapping conflicts, ideological and demographic. The party's conservative primary voters determine nominees, even if their views are often opposite those of the far more moderate general election audience. And the party's white and conservative voter base is increasingly giving way to the state's non-white and nonpartisan population.

The political dilemma played itself out in dramatic fashion this year. Fiorina campaigned from the start as a staunch conservative. Whitman took a more moderate line on issues such as abortion rights and the environment. Fiorina skated through the primaries, her views largely in line with party activists. Whitman, however, was pulled to the right on immigration by her opponent in the primary, Steve Poizner, a move that foreshadowed continued difficulties with the issue. In the end, both were dispatched by general election voters.

Both ended the election season with firmly negative impressions among California voters. Only 31% had a favorable view of either candidate. While 44% had an unfavorable view of Fiorina, Whitman suffered an even more forceful rebuke, with 57% thinking ill of her. Among Latino voters, who were key to November's results, 71% disliked her.

Marjorie Smallwood, a Democrat from Palo Alto who was among the poll respondents, illustrates the difficulty that GOP candidates face in the state. The only Republican she's been tempted to vote for recently, she said, was Senate candidate Tom Campbell, who lost in the primary after a barrage of criticism that he was not conservative enough.

"He's moderate, he's a thinking person," she said. "If they want independents and Democrats to vote for them…"

The anti-Republican judgments were pronounced among voter groups whose growth has reshaped the contours of California elections. Nonpartisan voters, those who register as "decline to state," now make up more than 20% of voters in California. Latinos last month made up about one in five voters. In 2010, as in past years, both groups strongly supported Democratic candidates and policies. The poll suggested that was driven at least in part by disagreements with major positions held by Republicans.

Asked their views on same-sex relationships, for example, 49% of California voters backed the right to marriage, 29% favored civil unions and 15% said there should be no legal recognition at all. Among nonpartisans, support for same-sex marriage rose to 54%.

The range of responses on immigration put voters at a distance from typical GOP candidates, most recently Whitman and Fiorina.

By a 41-point margin, voters supported reducing the time needed to immigrate for those who have relatives in the United States. By a 56-point margin, California voters backed a measure that would award citizenship to those who complete college or serve in the military. By a 19-point margin, they endorsed an immigration reform plan that would allow citizenship for those who fulfill specific requirements like paying a fine.

In all cases, those views were held more strongly by Latino voters. They supported comprehensive reform by a 58 point margin. They also opposed, by a lopsided 58% to 35%, banning illegal immigrants from emergency room treatment or public schools. Among all voters, that question drew the narrowest result, with 49% opposing restrictions to 44% supporting them.

Californians also brushed aside much of the GOP's underlying philosophy.

When asked whether government regulation of businesses protected the public or caused more harm than good, Californians defended regulation by a 15-point margin. When asked whether government protection of minorities was important or fostered societal divisions, government protection won, 52% to 35%. When asked whether government should help the poor, or whether that encouraged dependence, Californians backed government help, 49% to 39%.

As troubling as those numbers were from a conservative perspective, the poll suggested that Republicans face worse problems ahead. Among voters under age 30, same-sex marriage was backed by 64%, 15 points higher than among votes overall. Younger voters' support for immigration reform was 10 points higher than overall. They and Latinos defended government activism more strongly than voters overall.

Ideologically, 42% of those under age 30 described themselves as liberal, whereas only 20% of those age 65 and above did. Only 28% of Latino voters and 36% of nonpartisan voters were over age 50, compared with 52% of white voters and 51% of Republicans.

Though political views can change over time, the configuration of California's politics align well for the reelection chances here for President Obama. By 54% to 41%, most approve of the way he is doing his job. He retains even stronger personal popularity: 61% think well of him as opposed to 36% who do not.

Republicans nationally have sought to undercut Latino support for Obama, but that effort has foundered in California. Sixty-eight percent of Latinos support his actions as president, and a startling 79% have a good impression of him. His positive numbers among younger voters and decline-to-state voters were similarly higher than among voters overall.

"California is a diverse state, and this survey … underscores the price Republicans pay for seeming to not [be] welcoming the next wave of immigrants," said Democratic pollster Greenberg.

The poll surveyed a random sample of 1,689 registered California voters, interviewed by telephone from Nov. 3 to 14 by the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, the Republican firm American Viewpoint and Latino Decisions, which surveyed Latino voters. The margin of sampling error for the full sample is 2.4 points in either direction, with larger margins for subgroups.

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

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