California political axis now east-west

Golden State Republicans' hopes now lie inland, not in the south.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As California's "north vs. south" World Series fades into memory, a state election looms in which Democrats could pull off the first single-party sweep of the state's top seven elected offices in more than half a century.

The two events – one social/cultural, one political – are calling attention to the demographics of the nation's most economically important and politically influential state. What analysts are finding is that long-held notions of California as a Republican-leaning megastate, split roughly in two between a liberal north and a conservative south, are morphing like the Anaheim Angels' computer-generated "rally Monkey."

The more accurate new paradigm, experts say, is a map cutting east-west like a banana split, with a strongly Democratic coastal zone facing off against an increasingly Republican east.

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The shift carries significant long-term implications for California's politics, its clout in Washington, and its social identity.

"The changes within California from essentially a north-south paradigm to an east-west paradigm hold the keys to how politicians of all stripes must recast their strategies to appeal to the state's jackpot of voters," says Mark Baldassare, director of the California Public Policy Institute.

Demographics have been moving slowly in this direction for a decade, he says. But they have only recently begun to shatter old notions that are reinforced by visible, but essentially shallow, rivalries such as sports loyalties.

The causes include steady and gradual shifts: the rise of Hispanic and Asian middle classes, the repopulating of San Joaquin Valley by commuters, and the loss of half a million defense/aerospace jobs in Southern California in the early 1990s.

Most important, analysts say, is the quest for middle-class housing by young, mainly white families who have been priced out of homes in Orange, Los Angeles, and San Francisco counties, as well as posh communities in Santa Barbara, San Diego, Monterey, and Marin counties.

The search for lower-cost housing has taken hundreds of thousands of families inland – both to the vast Central Valley and to the so-called "inland empire" of San Bernardino, east of Los Angeles.

Agricultural communities that long voted Democratic are seeing influxes of families with a conservative bent, turning the map of California into its own clone of the Bush-Gore presidential race with its rural-urban, churchgoing-secular distinctions.

"Every good political consultant worth his salt is rethinking the way politics must be played in this state," says Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist.

Consider the contrast between the presidential-race outcomes in 2000 and 1968: Two years ago, Democrat Al Gore carried 20 of the state's 58 counties – almost all of them touching the Pacific Ocean (or San Francisco Bay), crushing Republican George Bush statewide by a vote of 53 percent to 41 percent. In 1968, Democrat Hubert Humphrey won 21 of 58 counties – all but three north of San Jose, losing the state by 3 points to Richard Nixon.

That change for national candidates is also reflected in the state legislature and congressional districts. Republicans, who held about half of San Francisco area legislative seats 20 years ago, now hold just one seat there – a seat that could shift to Democrats next week.

In the same way, Democrats in the 1970s held all of the Central Valley's congressional districts but now have 3 of 10, which could drop to two this fall.

In the governor's race, too, Republican Bill Simon leads inland, while Democrat Gray Davis has a wide lead in coastal, metro areas.

"Now, the GOP must overcome a much greater Democrat surplus in the metro counties. And given the new political geography, they can only do this by turning out the inland county vote and wooing middle-class Latinos," says Alan Heslop, a demographer at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

To explain the new shift to out-of-state residents, experts use the coastal range of mountains as a convenient geographic dividing line. Coastal cities are increasingly dominated by those more inclined to a host of liberal issues from the environment to education. San Francisco, long a Democratic stronghold, is now even more so – with Republicans making up 13 percent of voters, versus 29 percent in 1970.

Inland Riverside county, by contrast, is 35 percent Democratic today, down from 50 percent in 1970, and virtually all elected offices are held by Republicans.

For now, the big question marks are which party will go after new voters more vigorously, especially independent "swing" voters and Latinos, who are projected to be the state's largest ethnic group by 2014.

"The Democrats are appealing to Independent voters, and the Republicans are in trouble because their ideas don't mesh with these key swing voters on guns, environment, abortion," says Sherry Jeffe, an analyst at the University of Southern California. "That's why Simon is in trouble."

The new dynamic promises to insure that the state continues as an incubation spot for a host of policy and citizen initiatives.

"The US national government as a whole is more controlled by the thin, marginal advantage of inland, conservative, rural types right now, while California is controlled by its liberal coast," says Bruce Cain, political scientist at University of California, Berkeley. "That means the country's largest state will continue to stand out from the rest on issues from the Iraqi war to social policies."

But he and others caution against rewriting the new paradigm in permanent ink. Water issues are likely to reignite in the next few years, analysts say, which could reinforce the old north-south rivalry.

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