In This Moment of Distress, California Offers Us Hope 

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tags: election 2016, Trump



Samuel J. Abrams is Professor of Politics at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY and Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.


With the dust from the 2016 Presidential election now settling, Americans are shocked and unhappy and it appears that a re-alignment is on the way. Exit polling data revealed that both Trump and Clinton were viewed unfavorably by the electorate and a majority of voters stated that they distrust both candidates. A third of voters had serious concerns and reservations about their choice in booth and a quarter stated that their vote was in explicitly a protest vote in opposition to the other candidates.

None of this should come as a surprise. Before the 8th of November, only 37% of Americans believe that the two major parties do an adequate job representing the citizenry and concerns about the election and electoral reform along with dissatisfaction with the government closely followed questions about the economy as being the most important problem facing the country today. Division, angst, disgust, frustration, and polarization are words that are impossible to ignore when we think about our political climate today.

To many, the Golden State does not appear to be immune to polarization with regular talk of the effects gerrymandering and the need for open primaries as many see the parties moving away from the center and to the extremes. Academic studies have cited serious political dysfunction leading to an inability to pass legislation and govern in the state while other studies have found that California has the nation’s most polarized legislature with its left-right ideological distance greater than Congress in Washington, DC. Political parties are moving further apart and these divisions are reflected in the often cited inland/coastal divide with the coast being dominated by liberal, multicultural progressives in living a booming tech and media-based economy and an aging, struggling industrial and agrarian inland region which has become increasingly conservative over time.

The 2016 Presidential election map of California certainly appears to be deeply polarized. The coasts were firmly Democratic blue with the inland going Republican red and 76% of California counties were cases where one candidate won by 10 or more points. The average margin of victory for one candidate over the other across the 58 counties was 26 points. Clinton won 32 primarily coastal counties and carried an average of 62% of the vote in those counties, while Trump won the remaining 26 inland counties and averaged 58% of vote in those areas. Certainly, these election day data make a strong case of the polarization narrative coupled with a deep inland-coastal divide.

Despite all of this negativity, I have some good news. While California is not entirely immune to issues of polarization and division, the aforementioned deep cultural and political divides are simply not as pronounced or widespread as many observers and pundits would like us to believe. This is valuable nationally as California and its politics have become the harbinger of so many future national socio-political trends. 2016 may seem dire to many, but Americans are far less divided than it appears.

Some history is valuable here.

For decades, one of the most lasting regional spatial models of California is Wolfinger and Greenstein’s (1969) view that California of the 1960s was divided between the North and the South with San Francisco and Los Angeles representing very different ideological leanings and histories. The view was a natural outgrowth of an1859 movement by the California legislature to split the state in two that was eventually disallowed by the US Congress. Social theorist Carey McWilliams’ (1946) observational ideas on a north-south division are perhaps the most enduring to this day:

In the vast and sprawling state of California, most statewide religious, political, social, fraternal, and commercial organizations are divided into northern and southern sections…while other states have an east-west or a north-south division, in no state in the Union is the schism as sharp as in California.  So sharp is the demarcation in California that when state-wide meetings are held, they are usually convened in Fresno, long the ‘neutral territory’ for conventions, conferences, and gatherings of all sort.  (4)


Many observers and pundits alike have expanded on the McWilliam’s sentiments and continue to believe that Northern Californians tend to look down on Angelenos as uncultured, narcissistic hedonists while Southern Californian’s see northerners as smug, cabernet-swilling liberals in a provincial tech-bubble and self-congratulatory.  Certainly, scholars and observers have posited numerous other models of California regionalism, but few have really endured in the public’s mind like McWilliams’.

In 2008, Dourzet and Miller exposed that the north-south model has not been empirically valid since the 1980s. In its place, is a newer model emerged and that is of an inland-coastal divide – 20 counties along the Pacific and San Francisco Bay and 38 counties inland. Korey (2008) argues that, “Generally speaking... as one travels from west to east in California, one also moves from left to right politically” and Drum (2013) postulates that, “So it's true: California really is two states. Not northern and southern, though. Unless water is involved, LA and San Francisco can get along OK. Basically, what this chart shows is coastal vs. inland. Most of coastal California is as liberal as its stereotype, while inland California is somewhere to the right of rural Georgia. Lately, the coastals have taken firm command of Sacramento, and the inlanders haven't yet figured out how to respond.” Douzet and Miller (2008) argue that there is “an increasingly prominent east-west partisan divide that in many ways replicates the recent national division of liberal “blue” states on the coasts and the upper Midwest from conservative “red” states in much of the interior West, lower Midwest, and South.

Historian Victor Davis Hanson has written that, “Driving across California is like going from Mississippi to Massachusetts without ever crossing a state line.” He continued by noting that the inland and coast are “two radically different cultures and landscapes with little in common, each equally dysfunctional in quite different ways. Apart they are unworldly, together a disaster.” Hanson concluded that California can be characterized as, “a postmodern narrow coastal corridor runs from San Diego to Berkeley, where the weather is ideal, the gentrified affluent make good money, and values are green and left-wing. This Shangri-La is juxtaposed to a vast impoverished interior, from the southern desert to the northern Central Valley, where life is becoming premodern.”

Historical narratives of California and the United States consistently focus on deep divides such that some form of division seems to be the norm. In fact, Leo and Smith’s Two Californias initially released in 1983 and republished in 2013, makes the case that “Millions of people believe wholeheartedly that there are two Californias,” and “[t]hey feed off each other, enrich each other, push each other on. It is hard to imagine one without the other” (93)

So, while the present historical story appears to be one of division and where that division exists has changed, I am pleased to report that these accounts are overblown.

Empirical data can be very powerful here in really digging into these stories of disunion and the California Secretary of State just released its 2016 voter registration report and very few of the 58 counties in California are actually polarized, Democratic or Republican strongholds. The widely used metric for a polarized, “landslide,” county is when 60% or more of a county’s voters are registered for one party and in 2016, not one county met this standard

In contrast, close to sixty-percent of California counties met this landslide standard in the 1960s. The number of landslide counties in California has plummeted since the 1960s and has hovered around the zero county mark since 2002. If we relax the standard to 55% for one party, 5 counties are partisan leaning and those happen to be the usual Bay Area suspects of Santa Cruz, San Mateo, San Francisco, Marin, and Alameda with the Los Angeles region notably absent. Expanding the definition to a simple majority, only 11 counties have one party with 50% or more of the total registration and – like the 60% landslide metric – the number of counties which meet the simple majority definition has deeply declined from almost ninety-five percent in the 1960s to a little under twenty-percent today. These numbers and huge declines hardly suggest a state with counties that are deeply partisan and growing further and further apart. The counties are not polarizing, they are moderating.  The figure below presents this historical data and it is striking.


Landslide Counties in California by Voter Registration: 1962 - 2016


Of course, one could argue that counties are not ideal units to look at questions of partisanship due to gerrymandering. Even with California's "independent" Citizens Redistricting Commission, drawing such units where boundaries can and do change with very real political consequences remains a  highly politicized process.  Fortunately, the Secretary of State provides registration data by Congressional district as well. Despite concerns of manipulation to create safe districts for one party or another, only 4 of California’s 53 Congressional districts are “landslide” districts at the 60% level (three in LA and one in the Bay Area). At the 55% level, 7 districts are landslide and at the 50% level, only 13 are landslide counties by voter registration. Once again, it is hard to argue that California districts are heading off into different directions politically when only 8% of the Congressional districts are have 60% landslide partisan majorities before the 2016 elections. 

This story of moderation goes deeper than just these important voter registration statistics. My own research has examined numerous other political and social questions that regularly present themselves to Californians and I have found little evidence that the state is pulling apart politically. In fact, when looking at decades of survey data, the surprising fact that emerges is that Californians who reside along the coast and inland see the political world in the same way. Attitudes toward government (its role in society and its effectiveness), abortion, economic policies, immigration, environmental regulation, gay rights, satisfaction with the political system, and electoral behavior and political engagement are practically identical across regions in the state.

For instance, over the past two decades, Californians have been asked which of two statements comes closer to their view: “The government should pass more laws that restrict the availability of abortion; or [2] the government should not interfere with a woman’s access to abortion.” Plotting the “should not interfere” position, both the inland and coastal regions have strong majorities—65 and 71 respectively—by 2014 and the positions not only tracked over 14 years, they barely moved and even converged in 2011 at 70 percent arguing for not interfering with a woman’s right to choose. Abortion has long been a central issue in the so-called culture wars, but it is barely a skirmish geographically in California.


Despite the clear fact that the voter registration data illuminates moderation away from extremes in Congressional districts and counties and decades of public opinion data which shows statewide parity on many issues and pragmatic views toward politics, it is understandable why so many still feel that the state is deeply divided.  

When elite level politicians and organizations present polarized choices and candidates, citizens feel that their voices are not being heard and that they must select between the lesser of two evils. Consequently, electoral results can and often do appear extreme and small localized differences can make regions appear drastically different from one another. Localized party behavior in terms party organizing, framing of issues, outreach and mobilization, along with overall electoral competitiveness of the particular places distort reality and leave Californians stuck making choices that they do not like.

The new 2016 voter registration data from the California Secretary of State along with the public opinion data show that Californians are far less extreme and partisan in one direction or the other than data which only looks at electoral outcomes. By being able to opt-out of making a party decision, voter registration data reveals that California has not turned into a state with deep political-geographic divisions or has many counties or Congressional districts that are tilted to the extreme in either direction. While the historical evidence from the 1960s reveals that there were real political divides in the state, they have disappeared today. This is a perfect example of where some historical data can robustly speak to these analytic narratives and really show that not all are correct.


I believe that this data all reveals that Californians want reasonable and thoughtful politicians and policy proposals. Just looking at electoral results and choices distort the reality that clearly shines through in the registration data. Polarized choices in the voting booth that emanate from a polarized, primary process do not regularly reflect the interests of the masses and lead to the polarized outcomes that we just saw on Election Day. The question for now is when will Californians demand more from their parties and when will these political elites actually listen to their very own constituents? 2016 publicized the fact that candidates on both the left and right were out of touch with the people and the primaries illustrated how cracked these partisan bases actually are. There is a huge opportunity here for Californians need practical and pragmatic leadership. The party and candidates that actually represent these moderate ideas and listens to the people has a lot to gain after the craziness of the 2016 election cycle. 



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