If current voting and registration trends persist in Orange County, the longtime Republican stronghold will support its first Democrat for president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. A victory for Hillary Clinton here will signal that the turning point is near: Democrats soon will be the biggest party in Orange County.
Orange County once had California’s highest percentage of voters registered Republican. As late as 1990, the O.C. GOP held a 22% registration advantage over Democrats. By May 2015, that figure had dropped to 9%. Today it is just 5.3%. Even assuming voter registration slows after the November election, by 2020 Democrats will almost certainly overtake Republicans, as they already have in neighboring Riverside County.
How close is Orange County to turning blue? In the June 7 presidential primary, 55% of the votes cast for president went to the Democratic candidates, while only 44% went to Donald Trump or other Republicans still on the ballot — a 66,045 vote advantage for the Democrats. In the city of Fullerton, Republicans have a mere 144 voter registration lead, and it is shrinking. When Fullerton flips, five of Orange County’s seven largest cities, which contain more than half the county’s population, will have Democratic majorities.
Latinos are the county’s largest and fastest-growing demographic group. Incredibly, O.C. Republicans began alienating them long before Trump.
For now, Republicans still dominate local government. The five county supervisors are all Republicans, and the party holds majorities on most city councils, school boards and special districts, especially in the southern part of the county.
Democrats, hampered by lower voter participation, have gained elected office only in fits and starts. But that is starting to change. Under 2002’s California Voting Rights Act, cities with racially polarized voting can be forced to switch from at-large elections to choosing candidates by district. The change is happening across Orange County: Anaheim, Garden Grove and Fullerton are among the cities adopting district voting this fall. District voting makes it easier for people of color, who are most often Democrats, to win local elected office.
Orange County Republicans, like the party nationwide, shot themselves in the foot in the face of two demographic trends: fewer white voters and more young ones. In the 1990 census, 64% of Orange County was white, and 36% were people of color. Twenty years later, 44% of the county was white, and 56% were people of color.
Latinos are the county’s largest and fastest-growing demographic group. Incredibly, O.C. Republicans began alienating them long before Trump started talking about walls and mass deportations.
In 1988, the party illegally hired private uniformed guards — some holding signs saying “Non-Citizens Can’t Vote” in English and Spanish — to “monitor” polling places in Santa Ana. Then in 1994, the party championed Proposition 187, which would have cut off social services and schools to undocumented immigrants. That was thrown out in court, but not before inflaming the Latino community, who in 1996 ended conservative firebrand Bob Dornan’s congressional career and elected Loretta Sanchez to the House.
In 1984, 45% of California Latinos voted for Ronald Reagan. By 2012, 72% voted for Barack Obama. The Republican National Committee did a famous “autopsy” of its loss after 2012 that advocated repairing its broken relationship with Latinos by embracing comprehensive immigration reform. Instead, the party got Trump calling Mexicans drug dealers, criminals and rapists.
The same 2012 GOP report noted that the party is viewed by voters under 30 as a bunch of “stuffy old men.” Young people view the GOP unfavorably by a margin of two to one because of its intolerance of gays and “alternative points of view.” So as white men move away or die, they are being replaced by younger voters who have more progressive views on race relations, gay rights, gun control, and climate change.
Trump, who personifies nearly everything the GOP autopsy advocated against, has nevertheless been endorsed by the Orange County GOP. No elected Republican Orange County official has renounced him.
Had a more moderate candidate won the nomination, such as John Kasich, Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush, and followed the RNC’s recommendations, these trends may have been slowed. Instead, Trump has accelerated the demise of the Republican majority here, and elsewhere.
Election day will be a sign of things to come. Orange County, known nationwide as a bastion of conservatism, will vote for a Democrat and turn blue on a U.S. election map for the first time in 80 years.
Fred Smoller is a political science professor at Chapman University.