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Orange County, once a GOP bastion, goes for Biden over Trump

Quan Nguyen of Santa Ana votes early Monday at the Honda Center in Anaheim.
Quan Nguyen of Santa Ana votes early Monday at the Honda Center in Anaheim.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

For the second straight presidential election, a Democratic candidate appears poised to splash a coat of blue over the former conservative stronghold of Orange County.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about former Vice President Joe Biden’s early lead in the county — once so reliably ruby red that President Reagan quipped it’s “where the good Republicans go before they die” — is the fact that it was not unexpected.

“That’s not at all surprising, given the registration and the other trends that are making this a purple county,” said Fred Smoller, an associate professor of political science at Chapman University.

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Biden was leading President Trump in the county, 54% to 44.2%, Wednesday morning, with a margin of more than 124,000 votes, according to the Orange County registrar of voters office.

While there are still plenty of ballots left to tally, the preliminary numbers demonstrate the potential endurance of shifts in demographics and voter attitudes that four years ago made Hillary Clinton the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the county since the Great Depression.

“It doesn’t take a genius to see that if Orange County supported Hillary Clinton, who many people felt was a flawed candidate, that they would also support, perhaps in even greater numbers, Joe Biden,” Smoller said.

Clinton beat Trump in the county by a margin of 50.9% to 42.3%. In 2012, Republican candidate Mitt Romney prevailed over then-President Obama by more than 6 percentage points.

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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.

There are a few reasons for Orange County’s political metamorphosis, experts say. One is that the makeup of the county itself is changing.

“Older white males, conservatives, have been exiting the electorate — either dying or retiring to Arizona — and they’re being replaced by younger people, particularly people of color, who are trending Democratic,” Smoller said.

Louis DeSipio, a professor of political science and Chicano/Latino studies at UC Irvine, said the county also has experienced “sort of the national demographic trend of white women being a little bit more suspicious of the Republican Party.”

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“It’s been building,” he said of the county’s shift toward swing status, “and the building story is a demographic story.”

Another factor, DeSipio said, is Democrats’ increased attention and activity in the county. They’ve made significant gains in voter registration — overtaking Republicans in that metric last year — and swept the county’s seven congressional seats in 2018.

“That sort of investment serves to mobilize new voters,” he said, “because if there’s an area that’s so solidly with Democrats or so solidly with Republicans that there’s no competition, younger voters are slower to get involved in the process because they think, ‘What difference does it make?’ ”

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That’s not to say Orange County is on the cusp of transforming into a blue bastion, though. Republicans remain competitive down the ballot and had staked narrow leads in two of the county’s congressional races as of early Wednesday.

It’s also impossible to write the definitive account of Orange County in 2020 when there are still more than 211,000 ballots left to count, according to an estimate from the registrar of voters.

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But both Smoller and DeSipio said the trends that have pushed the county into the purple realm are unlikely to dissipate anytime soon.

“It always used to be red, it wasn’t even worth talking about because everything was red,” Smoller said. “But now you’re going to see competitive races: Some are going to go to Democrats, some to Republicans and several of them are going to be very, very close.”


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