by Bill Whalen
During the First World War, a top German military commander supposedly came up with these unflattering words—“shackled to a corpse”—to describe his country’s alliance with the faltering Austro-Hungarian empire.
That’s also one way to explain the California Republicans’ uneasy coexistence with President Trump.
Not that Trump is a political “corpse”—not nationally, at least.
The first key 2020 presidential vote isn’t for another year and two weeks (the Iowa caucuses on the first Monday in February 2020). While only 38 percent of voters in last week’s Fox News Poll said they’d go with Trump if the election were held today, only once since 1980 (George W. Bush in 2004) has the “reelect question” proved to be predictive this far from the actual vote.
But California’s a different story.
In 2016, Trump’s performance in the Golden State (31.6 percent) was the weakest in a two-candidate presidential contest since Alf Landon in 1936 (31.7 percent). Trump’s approval rating in California is minus 26 points—the lowest figure for all fifty states. (In only nine states, including all three on the West Coast, is Trump at minus 20 or worse.)
And there’s the question of the so-called “Trump effect” on California’s most recent election results.
With the November vote at long last certified, Governor-elect Gavin Newsom received a record 7.72 million votes (61.9 percent). Newsom ran hard on such concepts as universal prenatal care and prekindergarten, single-payer health care, and job training. He also spent considerable time making it clear that he was running for both governor and leader of an anti-Trump “resistance” (Newsom’s been doing this for years now).
Which of those messages—expansive government or Trump-bashing—resonated with voters?
According to this survey released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), only 41 percent of likely voters approve of Newsom’s “plans and policies for California.” That includes 61 percent of Democrats and 41 percent of independents. About 30 percent of both blocs didn’t offer a ready opinion. This suggests that policy alone wasn’t the fuel for the Newsom fire.
Now, let’s look at PPIC’s Trump-related numbers. Just 36 percent of likely voters approve of Trump’s performance—that includes just 39 percent support in the socially conservative Central Valley and only 31 percent support in the Orange County/San Diego region, where GOP congressional candidates took a drubbing last month.
California has now held two statewide votes with Donald Trump either on the ballot or driving the conversation. Turnout of registered voters in November 2016 was 75.2 percent—the highest for a presidential vote since 2008. Last month’s turnout weighed in at 64.5 percent, the highest percentage in a gubernatorial election since 1982 (69.7 percent participation).
However, 1982 was a year in which California had competitive gubernatorial and Senate contests (Tom Bradley seeking to be the state’s first black governor; Jerry Brown looking for a lateral move from governor to senator). In fact, turnout during the eight California gubernatorial elections between 1982 and 2018 averaged only 56.9 percent.
(America’s nation-state is not the only big blue state to have experienced a “Trump Bump” in 2018; Illinois’s midterm turnout was its best since 1990; New York saw its highest voter turnout since 1994.)
California’s political landscape has experienced climate change—sadly, for conservatives, a climate that’s hostile to Republicans. Since 2006, the state’s seen an increase of 3.84 million registered voters. Nearly half of them have gone to the Democrats (1.83 million). Meanwhile, GOP registration has declined by 701,000 voters.
But wait—it gets worse for California Republicans.
The state GOP’s ranks declined by only 75,000 from 2006 to 2010. From 2010 to 2014, Republican registration fell by another 356,000 voters. Still another 270,000 GOP voters walked away from 2014 to 2018.
However, this slide occurred against the background of a registration bull market—an increase of 1.892 million voters since the 2014 election. In the last four years, Democratic registration has grown by nearly 850,000 voters (but only a 0.15 percent increase in its share of the electorate), while the GOP’s share has shrunk by 4 percent. (California’s American Independent and Green Parties also are down, but by less than 0.2 percent apiece.)
What this portends is that as long as Trump is involved as a candidate or a brand influencer, more Californians are likely to participate in elections. Only, the state is bleeding Republicans as more voters enter the game.
How can this be corrected? Plenty of Californian Republicans have an opinion: the party needs to distance itself from Trump; no, it should double down on Trump-brand populism; it should embrace more centrist policies; no, should it double down on conservatism.
Here’s a thought: see what voters are telling pollsters.
Let’s return to that PPIC survey, which posed this question to likely California voters: do you prefer “higher taxes and more services” or “lower taxes and fewer services”?
Republicans split 15 percent to 81 percent in far stronger preference of lower taxes. No surprise there.
But what about those groups where the California GOP has to increase its numbers to become competitive again in statewide races?
Independents split evenly, 49 percent to 48 percent. Women favored higher taxes, 55 percent to 40 percent. Asian Americans favored lower taxes, 45 percent to 48 percent. The other key splits: Latinos 59 percent to 35 percent in favor of higher taxes; millennials, 55 percent to 41 percent; Generation Xers, 52 percent to 41 percent.
The same PPIC survey also asked Californians how they’d prioritize the state’s multibillion-dollar budget surplus. “Increasing state funding for education, health and human services” led the way with 57 percent, followed by “pay down debt and build up reserve” (21 percent) and “one-time spending for transportation, water and infrastructure” (16 percent).
This isn’t to suggest that California Republicans should rebrand and reemerge as the party of big government. That wouldn’t pass the credibility test. Besides, conservatives would likely break off and form a third party.
But it does indicate that the California electorate has changed since the days when Ronald Reagan could joke that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”
And it underscores the challenges in state Republicans building a get-out-the-vote strategy around the likes of the failed Proposition 6, which sought to eliminate a recent increase in California’s gasoline tax. Prop 6’s opponents found it easy to defeat the measure by asking voters which they’d prefer: lower taxes or a halt to road improvements.
Christmas is but a few days away. What to get a political party with a long wish list? California’s GOP needs a stronger crop of candidates, an enormous cash infusion, and a more productive approach to turning out the vote in regions both friendly and hostile.
Maybe the better landmark is New Year’s Eve, which is a time for reflection and resolutions. California Republicans will be looking back on what went wrong in 2018 and considering what they can do to improve the party’s fortunes in 2019 and to survive past another California Trump referendum in 2020.
Bill Whalen, the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism and a Hoover Institution research fellow since 1999, writes and comments on campaigns, elections and governance with an emphasis on California and America’s political landscapes.