As Orange County Goes, So Goes the Nation

For the first time since the '40s, California's conservative county may abandon the Republican Party in a presidential election

By , Mark P. Petracca is associate professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine and co-author of "The American Presidency" and editor of "The Politics of Interests."

IF Orange County goes for Democratic candidate Bill Clinton in November, so may the nation. A month ago, this prospect was unthinkable. But voters in Orange County are turning from George Bush and hesitantly towards Mr. Clinton - making the unthinkable possible.

I say "hesitantly" for good reason. Orange County hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Franklin Roosevelt. Indeed, on the strength of Orange County's growing population of Republican voters, a Democrat hasn't won California since Lyndon Johnson trounced Barry Goldwater in 1964.

Orange County, birthplace of Richard Nixon and a Reagan stronghold, is one of the fastest growing regions of the nation. It's suburban, and strongly Republican.

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It's importance to the outcome of state-wide elections can't be overstated. County voters were largely responsible for President Bush's California victory in a close 1988 race against Michael Dukakis. They helped Pete Wilson squeak by Diane Feinstein in the 1990 gubernatorial election. More recently, Orange County voters gave Senate hopeful Bruce Herschensohn the boost he needed to win the Republican primary over Representative Tom Campbell.

Behind the "orange curtain" lurk some of the nation's most conservative politicians. The county boasts five House members, all conservative Republicans. Save for one Democrat, Orange County is also represented in Sacramento by conservative Republicans noted for their ineffectiveness as a delegation and a proclivity for low-brow, reactionary politics. The same goes for local politics, where the county's GOP elite meddle in supposedly nonpartisan elections to secure the party's interests.

Republicans in Orange County have a 2 to 1 advantage over Democrats in voter identification. Yet, Orange County voters are not as conservative as their elected representatives, especially when it comes to social issues. Herein lies the key to understanding Bush's political trouble: The GOP elite have one problem - ideology. Rank and file voters have another - the recession. This facet of Orange County politics is not well understood.

There were early signs Bush was in trouble when two well-known county developers hosted a fund-raiser for Clinton last winter. The subsequent enthusiasm for Ross Perot signaled the president was having trouble making "Reagan country," "Bush country." Clinton now leads Bush in county polls by 18 points.

National attention was focused on Bush's trouble behind the orange curtain when one of the county's two most influential newspapers, the Orange County Register, published an editorial calling on the president to "Stand Down" from the 1992 presidential campaign. Though typically a staunch defender of Republican causes, Americans should know the Register has a libertarian editorial board and has long been critical of both Governor Wilson and Bush for their big-government conservatism.

The Register's criticism, about which so much has been written and said, is not new. It's editors have been critical of Bush from the get-go, reflecting Bush's ideological vulnerability among Orange County's conservative elite. Ideology is serious business behind the orange curtain. The GOP elite maintain ultra-conservative congressional and assembly delegations by stifling and discouraging competition from moderate Republican challengers during the primaries.

Conservatives are angry with Bush because he reneged on his promise not to raise taxes and has abandoned Ronald Reagan's conservative social agenda. Conservatives reluctantly supported Bush in 1988 on the strength of Mr. Reagan's endorsement. But Bush is no longer an acceptable heir to the Reagan legacy and along with Wilson is considered by many to be a traitor to the conservative cause.

If ideological differences were all the president had to worry about here, things might not be so bad. Some strong anti-tax, pro-development, traditional family values, anti-gay rights rhetoric might bring disgruntled ideologues back to Bush.

But Bush's second problem, the recession, is not as easily remedied and is of far greater concern to rank and file GOP voters.

The headlines of the county's two major newspapers summed up Bush's problem on August 1: "OC Unemployment Hit 9-Year High in June" and "OC Unemployment Leaps to 6.7%."

The county is in its longest and deepest recession in 40 years. Bush is no ideological traitor to the GOP rank and file voters who feel the recession's impact; he is simply incompetent.

As a result, Clinton's message of economic renewal coupled with Democratic moderation has increasing appeal among voters not as socially conservative as their elected representatives. Trumpeting the conservative social agenda will not work to elect Bush in Orange County during the third year of a recession.

As a liberal Democrat living behind the orange Curtain it's impossible to predict a Clinton win here in November, no matter what the polls say. But Clinton doesn't need to win Orange County to win California. Bush does and he needs to win big.

In 1988 Bush won 68 percent of the vote in Orange County - the biggest margin of any region in the state - and he needed all of it to win California. If Clinton can hold Bush to half that margin, a Bush "win" in the county will still mean the loss of California for the Republicans.

Since that's likely, so is a Clinton victory in California and possibly the nation. The nation is right to keep its eyes on Orange County. We may be the county that puts a Democrat back in the White House.

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