Orange County is losing its legendary status as the vanguard of California Republican politics. For decades, the county supplied the GOP with overwhelming electoral support, fresh ideas, and prominent leaders. Today, however, state and national Republicans are not looking to Orange County for leadership and demographic changes are eroding O.C. Republican strength from within.
To be sure, Orange County remains one of the more Republican areas in California. In 2010, Republican candidates won a majority of the Orange County vote for every statewide office, five of six congressional races, and 8 of 11 races in the state legislature.(2010 Election Results) But election data from the Orange County Registrar of Voters reveals that, since 2000, the GOP’s grip on the Orange County electorate has progressively weakened.
President Obama’s strong showing in 2008 demonstrated that Orange County’s partisan alignment should not be taken for granted. In 2008, Republican John McCain barely beat Obama by 50.2 percent to 47.6 percent, the worst showing by a Republican presidential candidate in Orange County since F.D.R. won the county’s vote in the 1936 election. Although the 2008 results were striking, Figure 1 shows that they are part of a larger historical trend. Since 1984, when the county gave Ronald Reagan 75 percent of its vote, the margins of victory for Republican presidential candidates have fallen considerably, hovering above 15 percent until rising to 20 in 2004 and then falling precipitously in 2008. The 40- or 50-point margins of the past do not seem likely to return given that the Democratic percentage of the vote has gone up in every presidential election since 1980, with the exception of 2004 when it remained roughly the same as in 2000.
Gubernatorial elections paint a more complicated picture. In 2010, Meg Whitman had a strong showing, winning by almost 20 points. Since 1980, however, the county has voted for Republican gubernatorial candidates by an average of 31.4 points. Whitman received 56.8 percent of the vote in 2010, about 6 percent less than the average Republican candidate since 1980. Though a 20-point victory is evidence of a strong Republican base, it does not demonstrate improvement. Rather, Whitman’s performance was a full 13 percent points behind Schwarzenegger’s 69.7 percent in 2006.
The biggest changes have come in congressional and state legislative elections, which are better indicators of underlying partisan affiliation than high-profile, candidate-driven, statewide races. In these “down ballot” races, it is clear that Republican strength is eroding. Specifically, since 2002, Republicans have lost ground in all but one Orange County-based legislative district. That exception was the 47th Congressional District, where Democrat Loretta Sanchez won by a smaller margin in 2010 than in 2002. But in all 17 Republican-held Orange County based state legislative and congressional districts, the Republican margin of victory was smaller in 2010 than in 2002. This is true despite a significant rebound in almost every district in 2010 over 2008.
In addition, Republican registration is declining in the county. Table 1 shows that Republican registration as a percentage of all registered Orange County voters has consistently fallen over the past decade, from 50 percent to 43 percent. 2010 was also the first time the total number of registered Republicans in Orange County fell. Republicans lost 25,025 registered voters in Orange County from 2008 to 2010, which contributed to the three percent drop in the Republican share of registered voters. Conversely, the total number of registered Democrats in Orange County increased by 27,087. This gain, however, increased the Democratic share of registered voters by only one percent. In fact, while Democratic registration has increased in absolute numbers for every two year period since 2000, Democratic registration as a portion of the electorate has remained stable at around 32 percent.
|Table 1: Orange County Registration Rates 2000-2010 Source: Orange County Registrar Primary Elections|
|Year||REP||DEM||Indpt.& 3rd P.|
The real change has been the shift to independents. Third party registration in Orange County has remained under four percent throughout the decade, but the number of decline to state voters has skyrocketed. In total, the number of decline to state and third party voters has gone from 18.6 percent to 24.5 percent of those registered. It is notable that all of the losses are coming from the Republican share, while Democrats are able to hold their proportion constant. It would seem, however, that independent voters have still favored Republicans by significant margins. Yet there are signs that this, too, may be changing.
The decline in Republican fortunes in Orange County is in part the result of rapid demographic change. Table 2 shows how the county’s Hispanic and Asian populations have grown over the past three decades, while the non-Hispanic white population has declined as a percentage of the whole. In Orange County, as in the rest of the state, the Republican Party is paying for its deteriorating relationship with minority voters, especially Latinos. As Orange County becomes increasingly diverse, the GOP will face even greater challenges unless it learns to appeal more effectively to minority voters.
An additional concern for Republicans is the lack of state and national leadership coming out of Orange County. In the past, Orange County Republicans politicians have been tapped for leadership roles in state and national politics. As the Orange County Register recently noted, as recently as 2008, Dick Ackerman from Irvine led the Republicans in the state Senate, a job that was previously held by Fullerton’s Ross Johnson. Other notable leaders in the Legislature include former Assembly Whips Chuck DeVore and Todd Spitzer. Yet in 2011, Orange County is underrepresented in the legislative leadership. Curt Hagman is the Assistant Floor Leader on the Assembly side, but only part of his district falls in Orange County. On the Senate side, Tom Harmon is the Rules Committee Vice Chair and Bob Huffon the Senate Republican Caucus Chair, yet Huffon again represents a split district and Harmon has little real power. As the OC Register notes, “There was a time when Orange County seemed to virtually run [the] GOP in Sacramento. It certainly doesn’t seem that way anymore.”
Table 2: Racial Composition of Orange County, 1980-2010
 Most of the statistics cited here were derived by compiling election results provided online by the Orange County Registrar of Voters. If there is no additional citation, the data can be found at the Orange County Registrar’s website.