As veteran truth-teller Thomas Sowell pointed out recently, “Phony arguments and phony words are the norm in discussions of immigration policy.” And no myth has become more entrenched in the media than that California demonstrates that cracking down on illegal immigration would be political suicide for Republicans.
For example, reporter Dan Balz proclaimed in the Washington Post following the Senate’s April 6 immigration “compromise” (i.e., surrender), “GOP officials point to California as the example they hope to avoid. Twelve years ago, then-Gov. Pete Wilson (R) pushed an anti-immigration ballot measure that sought to deny state assistance to undocumented immigrants. The initiative passed and helped Wilson win reelection, but it triggered a surge of new Democratic Latino voters in subsequent elections that have left Republicans deep in the minority in the state.”
This conventional wisdom is actually a bizarrely demonological distortion of the history of America’s largest, most visible state. Instead of one man somehow permanently warping the political destiny of 37 million people, California’s shift from the Republican to the Democratic column reflects tectonic demographic shifts, largely driven by immigration, that are spreading nationwide, and thus demand honest study.
The truth is close to the opposite. California voted for Republican presidential candidates in nine of the ten elections from 1952 through 1988. The collapse of the California GOP first became evident in 1992, two years before Prop. 187, when Republicans got skunked in California in the presidential election and two U.S. Senate races. In the last dozen major contests for president, governor, or senator there, Republicans have won only the two times they appealed to voter anger over illegal immigration. The ten times they meekly avoided the topic, they quietly went down to defeat.
After moderate Republican Pete Wilson won the 1990 gubernatorial election, a severe recession made him “the most unpopular governor in the history of modern polling,” according to a 1994 California Journal article. Wilson entered his 1994 re-election bid trailing by 20 percentage points. By making Prop. 187 the centerpiece of his campaign, Wilson came from behind and won by 15 points. Prop. 187 itself passed by 18 points.
Wilson is now commonly derided as the man who destroyed the California GOP by backing Prop. 187 and two subsequent anti-multiculturalist initiatives. Yet Prop. 209, which outlawed racial quotas, passed by nine points in 1996, and Prop. 227, which banned bilingual education, won by 22 points in 1998. When Wilson left office in 1998 due to term limits, his approval rating was at its highest ever.
In contrast, 1998 Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren came out against the anti-bilingual-education Prop. 227. He lost to Gray Davis by 20 points. Similarly, in the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush—who supported amnesty, bilingual education, and “affirmative access” (quotas)—outspent Al Gore $20 million to nothing in California and still lost by 11 points. In 2004, Bush lost to John Kerry by 10 points.
It’s often said that angry Latinos made subsequent Republican candidates pay for Wilson’s sins, but where are the numbers? According to the Census Bureau, California Hispanics cast 11.4 percent of the vote in 1994 and 13.9 percent in 1998. In both elections, the Republican gubernatorial candidate won 23 percent of the Hispanic vote, so the celebrated Latino “tidal wave of anger” accounted for less than a tenth of the Republicans’ plummet from Wilson’s 55 percent in 1994 to Lungren’s 38 percent in 1998.
The often-trumpeted Hispanic political ascendancy hasn’t quite gone through the formality of taking place yet—Latinos constituted only 6 percent of voters nationally in 2004—even in California.
The Achilles’ heel of Hispanic electoral clout has always been turnout. According to a 2002 study by demographers Jack Citrin and Benjamin Highton of the Public Policy Institute of California, although non-Hispanic whites made up only 47 percent of California’s population in 2000, they will still cast a majority of the votes in California more than a third of a century from now. The PPIC forecasts that in 2040, whites will constitute 53 percent of California’s electorate—twice the Hispanic share. (Of course, changes in immigration policy, such as putting millions of illegal immigrants on the path to citizenship, could change this.)
In truth, Lungren lost because whites didn’t show up and vote for him. While the number of Hispanic voters increased by 160,000 from 1994 to 1998 (out of 8.4 million votes cast), the non-Hispanic vote total dropped by 975,000. Without Prop. 187 to bring them to the polls, the percentage of non-Latinos voting fell from 41.4 percent to 35.9 percent.
Yet what truly doomed him in 1998 was that while Wilson had won 61 percent of the white vote in 1994, Lungren took just 45 percent. When a Republican doesn’t win the white vote, he doesn’t win the election. Period.
Indeed, out of the last dozen major races in California, the GOP has only won a majority of the white vote twice: Wilson in 1994 and in the 2003 recall, when Republicans Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom McClintock garnered 67 percent.
All the GOP candidates in California avoided Wilson’s winning anti-multiculturalist theme until the 2003 gubernatorial recall election in which the Democratic leadership foolishly handed the GOP its trump card by giving driver’s licenses to illegal aliens.
A month before the 2003 recall, Democratic governor Gray Davis sealed his fate by signing the legislature’s bill granting illegal aliens licenses without the criminal background checks he had previously demanded. On talk-radio station KFI, John and Ken, the tribunes of working guys who drive the freeways of Southern California all day selling or fixing stuff, made this a passionate issue. Both Schwarzenegger and McClintock ran against it. On Election Day, 70 percent told the Los Angeles Times exit pollsters that they opposed the bill.
With two Republicans splitting the vote, all that Davis’s lieutenant governor Cruz Bustamante, the only Democrat in the simultaneous race to replace the governor, needed to do to win was to position himself as the unthreatening centrist he’d been during a long career servicing big agribusiness in the Central Valley. In 1993, for example, he’d voted against illegal immigrants obtaining driver’s licenses.
Yet rather than run for governor of California, Bustamante campaigned as if the race were for El Gobernador de Mexifornia. Instead of competing with Schwarzenegger for the middle-of-the-road citizens, he battled Green Party candidate Peter Camejo (who won 2.8 percent) for the stick-it-to-the-gringo vote. Bustamante paid frequent tribute to “undocumented workers” and their moral right to driver’s licenses, reduced college tuition, and welfare. Despite leading at the beginning of the campaign, he was ultimately crushed by legal immigrant Arnold Schwarzenegger 49 percent to 32 percent, with McClintock taking 14 percent.
After getting off to a strong start, including repealing illegals’ licenses as promised, Schwarzenegger stumbled badly in 2005 by not realizing that his slate of initiatives to undermine the power of the public employees unions were perceived by his natural base, the white lower-middle class, as an assault on their survival in California’s outlandishly expensive housing market. Firemen, cops, nurses, and teachers— finding themselves squeezed between the Silicon Valley venture capitalists and Hollywood entertainment lawyers above them and the masses of illegal immigrants below them, and in direct competition for homes with extended families of Asian legal immigrants who often muster three or four paychecks per household—rallied support from their neighbors, who saw their union perks not as sinecures but as life preservers.
So what has really happened in California that has driven the GOP from being the natural majority party to one that wins only on the rare occasions when it can bring itself to rely upon populist outrage? Obviously, the arrival of millions of Hispanic and Asian immigrants, both voting solidly Democratic, has hurt the GOP. But immigration has also made California’s white voters more liberal.
American voting is increasingly driven by what I call “affordable family formation.” The GOP’s image as the family-values party is most appealing in states where voters are most likely to have families. Where it is cheap to buy a house with a yard in a neighborhood with a decent public school, you’ll find more marriages, more children, and more Republicans.
In 2004, George W. Bush carried only 44 percent of single white females but 61 percent of married white women. Thus, he won the 25 states where white women are most likely to be married between ages 18 and 44. (California, in contrast, ranks 49th.) And he was victorious in 25 of top 26 states in the number of babies born over the average white woman’s lifetime. (California is now 45th, way down from 15th in 1990.)
In America today, many young people don’t start down the road to marriage, children, and voting Republican until they can afford a down payment on a house. So Bush carried the 20 states with the cheapest housing costs (California has the most expensive), and the 26 states with the least home price inflation since 1980 (California is 46th from the bottom).
California once epitomized affordable family formation. The Golden State was the promised land of the common man from 1950 to 1975. Wages were reasonably high, while suburban housing was cheap in the narrow strip along the coast offering an exquisite Mediterranean climate. California became famous for its abundance of teenagers.
After 1975, however, the changing balance of supply and demand sent California home prices soaring, due both to internal migration and the beginning of the vast influx of the foreign-born, who by 2002 made up 27 percent of California’s residents.
The 1986 amnesty for illegal aliens (1.6 million in California alone) sped the decline of California’s affordability by setting off a Hispanic baby boom in the state. Laura E. Hill and Hans P. Johnson of the Public Policy Institute of California wrote in 2002:
Between 1987 and 1991, total fertility rates for foreign-born Hispanics increased from 3.2 to 4.4 [expected babies per woman over her lifetime. Why did total fertility rates increase so dramatically for Hispanic immigrants? First, the composition of the Hispanic immigrant population in California changed as a result of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. As a result, many young adult Hispanic women came to California during the late 1980s.
When all these children of amnestied Spanish-speakers reached school age, that just made California’s public schools even less appealing to white potential parents. (A likely, but unmentioned, consequence of a new amnesty would be a national baby boom among the least educated immigrants.)
A net of almost 2.2 million California citizens moved out of the state during the 1990s, with the greatest outflow from 1994 to 1998. Many went looking for a cheaper place to raise kids. Between 1990 and 2000 in California, the total fertility rate for non-Hispanic whites dropped 14.4 percent, compared to only 1.2 percent nationwide.
Brookings Institute demographer William H. Frey told me in 2000, “Another cause of the rise of the California Democrats is selective out-migration of the more rock-ribbed Republicans. The folks who have been leaving California’s suburbs for other states have the white, middle-class demographic profiles of Republican voters. California’s middle class families are being squeezed out by real estate prices. And Republicans are heading for whiter states where they won’t have to pay taxes for so many social programs for the poor.”
Meanwhile, the whites moving to California to work in Silicon Valley and Hollywood tended to be economically elite and socially liberal.
For those who stayed behind in California, it has become increasingly hard to form families. Four of my seven closest friends from my old San Fernando Valley high school married for the first time after their 40th birthdays. Life in California has begun to resemble a Jane Austen novel, with couples waiting for a grandparent to finally die and leave them a bequest so they can afford to wed.
If the Senate has its way on immigration, the Californication of the rest of America will accelerate.
Steve Sailer is TAC’s film critic and VDARE.com’s Monday morning columnist.