California Presidential PVIs, 1920-2016

Throughout the early 20th century, California was solidly Republican. In the 1920s Democratic seats in the state legislature numbered in the single digits. Republican candidates for governor in 1926 and 1930 won over 70% of the vote. From 1899 to 1932 the only Democrat elected statewide was James D. Phelan in 1914. The only other non-Republicans elected statewide in that period (also in 1914) were Progressives: Lieutenant Governor John M. Eshleman, who died in office and was replaced by Republican William Stephens, and Treasurer/future Governor Friend Richardson, who won reelection in 1918 as a Republican. Why was California such a crimson red state a century ago?

The Bay Area and Southern California had roughly equal shares of the state’s population, 35% and 37% respectively, in the 1920s. These 15 counties, containing over 70% of the state’s population, all had PVIs over R+10. The Central Valley, mountain, and other coastal counties mostly leaned Republican early in the decade but became Democratic later.

Labor unions, believe it or not, played only a minor role in state politics early on, with many progressive measures taking on corrupt machines and with organized labor having suffered a setback from the Preparedness Day Bombing in 1916. The Progressive Party embraced labor unions around that time, which led to a great reduction in their political power in the late 1910s. Farm labor in the Central Valley was not unionized until the Okies in the 1930s began demanding better working conditions.

The 1930s saw the Great Depression and a booming population, especially in Southern California. The film industry in Los Angeles insulated the area from income losses. Southern California overall saw its population more than double, pumping up its share of the state’s population to almost half. The area’s share surpassed 50% in 1940 and hasn’t looked back since. California became a swing state from these new voters, and would remain that way until the 1990s.

Even as the suburbs, and to a lesser extent the cities, filled up with newcomers from other states to work in the expanding aerospace and defense industries in the 1950s and 1960s, California remained a swing state. Through the late 1950s, Republicans held control of the state legislature, having held a majority in the State Senate throughout the 1930s and 1940s and only losing the Assembly to a short-lived Democratic majority from 1936 to 1942. In 1958, Democrats gained a lot of ground due to significant gains in urban areas and the abolition of cross-filing. The party would win state offices more often than not, hold at least one Senate seat and at least half of the House seats, and hold majorities in the state legislature almost the whole time. Even when they were in the minority, they held the highest possible number of seats for the minority, 19 in the Senate and 39 in the Assembly.

The Bay Area was beginning to trend Democratic, but by this point Southern California held more than twice as many people and remained Republican due to Orange County conservatism, military influence in San Diego, and weak labor union influence outside Los Angeles. Due to Republicans also still doing well in the Bay Area outside San Francisco and Oakland, California remained Republican at the presidential level through the 1980s. Even though California voted for LBJ in 1964, it was slightly to the right of the country as a whole. The state overall began trending leftward in the 1980s with the rise in power of public sector unions, with the signing of the Dills Act in 1977.

The 1990s saw a dramatic realignment all over, which continues to this day. Formerly Democratic counties in the Central Valley and mountains turned red (in some cases deep red), with Republican percentages surpassing Orange County (one of the top 5 GOP counties in the state from 1920 to 1988). The Bay Area became almost uniformly Democratic as the tech industry boomed. Southern California also became more Democratic when the aerospace industry crashed after the Cold War, resulting in a large-scale exodus of white voters. The suburbs there began trending Democratic while the urban cores turned deep blue, which showed as Democrats expanded their caucuses in the U.S. House and state legislature with wins in those suburban seats. With wins in suburbs in the Bay Area, Sacramento, San Diego, Ventura County, and the Inland Empire under their belts, it is no surprise that California Democrats now have their eyes on Orange County, namely the districts Hillary Clinton carried. I am not that great at predicting future elections, especially with Top 2, but I think 2018 and 2020 will show if the Democratic vote at the top of the ticket last year will show up downballot, especially with these Clinton-Republican seats getting a lot of focus this early in the cycle. I think the best way to gauge Democratic strength with Top 2 is to compare the Democratic and Republican shares in the first round in June.

Here are the PVIs for the state and each county in table format.

Here are visuals of the California PVIs statewide and by county.

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  • shamlet August 31, 2017 at 12:15 pm

    Love this series. It’s quite amazing that as late as 1976 the geographical coalitions of the two parties in California were almost exactly the opposite of what they are now.

    R, MD-7. Put not your trust in princes. Process is more important than outcome.

    • davybaby September 15, 2017 at 6:54 pm

      The political divide in California used to be north vs. south. Now it is west vs. east, i.e., coast vs. inland.

  • Republican Michigander August 31, 2017 at 6:23 pm

    California I think was the perfect storm.

    D bases got bigger.
    Dotcom era along with Tech outsourcing
    Latin American immigration combined with Pete Wilson
    Asian population going D (hitting us hard in Orange County)
    Defense industry collapse (which probably lost us San Diego)

    MI-08 - Michigan is a red state again. We need a 50 state strategy and an 83 county strategy.

  • Jon August 31, 2017 at 6:27 pm

    The 1960s era one man one vote cases might also have been important for the state legislative balance of power, particularly the state senate. Originally, the CA state senate gave 1 senator for every county, regardless of population. (Both Imperial county and LA county had 1 state senator each prior to it being overturned.)

    45, M, MO-02

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