Republican candidates have lost the popular vote for president in five of the past six elections, going back to 1992. In each of those contests, the Democratic nominee swept California, mostly by blowout margins; Barack Obama, for instance, crushed Mitt Romney and won the state’s 55 electoral votes with a landslide victory of 60 percent to Romney’s 37 percent.
This is amazing, considering that within the memory of any adult, California was actually part of the GOP “lock” on the Electoral College. During the 10 presidential contests between Eisenhower’s victory in 1952 and George H.W. Bush’s decisive win in 1988, the Republicans won it every time save for the singular exception of Barry Goldwater’s colossal defeat in 1964. Even losing GOP candidates such as Richard Nixon in 1960 and Gerald Ford in 1976 managed to prevail in California.
Not surprisingly, this winning record coincided with an era of GOP dominance of the Electoral College. Republicans won five of six White House battles between 1968 and 1988, falling short only in the close Carter–Ford race of 1976. In each of these elections, Republicans relied on a combination of strength in the Southern states and an almost automatic win in California, which became the nation’s most populous state in 1972.
The change in fortunes came in 1992, when Democratic nominee Bill Clinton flipped the state by winning 46 percent of its voters in the three-way battle with President George H.W. Bush and Reform Party candidate H. Ross Perot. Just as Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” combined with the George Wallace independent candidacy in 1968 to pry away the “Solid South” that had fueled sweeping Democratic triumphs for more than a quarter century, Bill Clinton’s “New Democrat” appeal and the Ross Perot independent race terminated the GOP’s 40-year command of the Golden State.
What changed? Of course, shifting demography played a role. In 1988, the last year a GOP candidate carried the Golden State, Latinos represented a reported 9 percent of the electorate; in 2012 that number had risen to 22 percent. But GOP problems in California go far deeper than an increase in the percentage of Hispanic voters, and a Republican recovery will need to do more than merely address the challenge of making a stronger, more competitive case to Latinos. In 2004, when President Bush lost the state by fewer than 10 points to John Kerry, whites still made up 65 percent of the electorate. If the Republican nominee had done as well with these white voters as he did among white voters nationwide (winning 58 percent), he would have carried the state; as it happened, Bush won the white vote in California by only four points while winning whites across the country by 17 points. Even with his relatively strong appeal to Latino and Asian voters (winning more than 40 percent of both groups nationwide), Bush couldn’t compete in the Golden State without earning the disproportionate white support that Republicans managed to garner elsewhere.
These realities cause some conservative strategists to despair of recapturing the nation’s largest state. But they could learn much from studying the victory formula of the last major GOP candidate to carry California: Arnold Schwarzenegger. The story of his peculiar political career may leave many Republicans feeling queasy, because of the sour relationship with the GOP that characterized the end of his term as well as the scandalous relationship with a domestic employee that marked the end of his marriage. Nevertheless, in 2006—a terrible year for Republicans, with the GOP losing the House, Senate, and the majority of the nation’s governorships—Schwarzenegger still managed a landslide reelection with an appeal that cut across all ethnic, income, and ideological lines.
Schwarzenegger won 63 percent of the California white vote, true, but he also secured 62 percent of the important Asian vote and a respectable 39 percent of Latinos. Most impressive, perhaps, Schwarzenegger got 27 percent of the state’s African-American vote: Any Republican who drew that sort of black percentage nationwide (where GOP nominees have recently drawn 6 percent or less) could waltz to the presidency.
Without a doubt, his movie-star background boosted his personal popularity (which he proved unable to transfer to other Republicans on the ticket), but it’s worth noting that Schwarzenegger won a significantly higher percentage of the vote (56 percent) when he ran for reelection after three years in non-glamorous Sacramento than he did in the media-driven recall election that initially brought him to power.
What drove his remarkable success as a California candidate for office, and what lessons could Republicans take away for seizing the Golden State’s golden key to future national victories? Schwarzenegger swept his state because he portrayed himself as precisely the sort of nonpartisan, independent-minded, pragmatic problem-solver California voters have always preferred. Among the 44 percent of 2006 voters who described themselves as “moderate,” the governor won by 20 points (58 to 38 percent); with the 25 percent who identified as “independent,” he prevailed by an even more lopsided margin of 59 to 33 percent.
This above-politics appeal corresponded to a long-cherished tradition in the state’s political past. If asked to name the most popular Republican in California’s history, most commentators would instinctively identify Ronald Reagan—but they would be entirely wrong. Indeed, in two gubernatorial and two presidential campaigns in his home state, Reagan never did better than the 57.7 percent he won in his first race for governor in 1966.
Hiram Johnson (1866–1945) would have scoffed at such statewide performance, since he won all his five terms as a Republican senator with bigger margins than that. The worst he ever did was winning 61 percent of the vote in the 1916 race that brought him to the Senate. The best was 94.5 percent in 1934. Johnson won his final race in 1940 near the height of the FDR era, winning 82.5 percent and dying in office shortly after the end of World War II. Before his Washington career, Johnson had won two terms as governor, the second as a Progressive Party candidate who had recently appeared on national ballots as Theodore Roosevelt’s running mate in his quixotic “Bull Moose” campaign of 1912.
In California, this flirtation with third-party adventurism did nothing to damage Johnson’s popularity and, in fact, helped him become an iconic figure who transcended partisanship. This foreshadowed both Reagan’s and Schwarzenegger’s first gubernatorial victories as populist “citizen candidates” untethered to any party establishment. A similar reputation for fierce, clean-government independence and antiestablishment gumption helped power Johnson’s protégé, Earl Warren, who won the primaries of all major parties for state attorney general in 1938 and then captured the office unopposed. Four years later, he became California’s governor as a Republican, winning three consecutive terms (the only person ever to achieve that feat) with majorities of 57 percent, 91 percent, and 65 percent in a difficult era for Republicans nationwide. During his middle term as governor (1947–51), he took advantage of California law to “cross-file,” which meant running as a candidate in both the Republican and Democratic primaries. Warren won both races, establishing his status as a nonpartisan, above-politics public servant.
In 1952, Senator William F. Knowland, appointed by Warren at age 37 to fill Hiram Johnson’s unexpired term, replicated the feat of winning a cross-filing victory. Running against Democrat Will Rogers Jr., he received 2.5 million votes, more than tripling his opponent’s 750,000. Knowland earned both the GOP and Democratic nominations and drew 88 percent of the general-election vote. As a strong advocate for civil rights, and a collaborator with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson on the historic Civil Rights Act of 1957, Knowland battled his former Senate colleague Richard Nixon for leadership of the California Republican Party after Governor Warren left the state for the Supreme Court. President Eisenhower said of him in 1956: “Knowland brings to his leadership post an absolute, unflinching integrity that rises above politics. In the councils of government, he inspires faith in his motives and gives weight to his words.”
No one expects today’s conservative Republican Party to dig up some crusading progressive to emulate the long-ago reign of Johnson-Warren Republicans in the Golden State, or even to bring back the pragmatic, cooperative, above-politics conservatism of Bill Knowland. But in an era when most Californians, like most Americans, lament the corruption, special-interest influence, and polarizing partisanship so characteristic of our era, Republicans ought to take a look at the sort of trans-partisan, reformist approach that has traditionally worked best on the left coast. In California, the adjective Independent has often had a special attraction when contrasted with the seemingly wooden designation of Democratic or Republican.
With the passage of Proposition 14 in 2010, the faltering GOP stands to benefit from the West Coast’s historic preference for candidates who transcend partisanship. Proposition 14 calls for California to have a “Jungle Primary,” in which the top two vote-getters (irrespective of party) qualify for the ballot in the general election. Like similar systems in place in Louisiana since 1975 and Washington State since 2004, this procedure de-emphasizes partisan labels and theoretically increases the chances for moderate coalition-builders to survive until the general election. By allowing all voters of any or no party to choose from the same list of candidates, the open primary reduces the likelihood that activists and true believers will select an ideologically pure candidate with little chance of statewide victory in November.
In considering California’s new open-primary reality, the peculiar circumstances of Schwarzenegger’s success in the 2003 recall election are instructive. In the complicated recall process, voters first decided whether they wanted to retain or recall incumbent Democrat Gray Davis (55.4 percent voted to remove him from office). Californians then had the chance to select his replacement from a list of candidates representing any and all parties—including the whimsical if outspoken Arianna Huffington, who drew almost 0.6 percent of the vote as an Independent. Schwarzenegger’s challenge was his fellow Republican Tom McClintock, who could have conceivably drawn away conservative GOP support while the sole Democratic contender, Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, won a solid vote from his party. As it happened, Schwarzenegger’s popularity with Democrats and Independents gave him a comfortable win with 48.6 percent, compared with Bustamante’s 31.5 percent and McClintock’s 13.4 percent. If Schwarzenegger had been forced to compete in a closed GOP primary, with only ideologically driven, registered Republicans allowed to help choose the party’s nominee, he could have lost to his more rightist rival, just as Tea Party contenders occasionally knock off more popular mainstream candidates in current party battles across the country.
This year, the new system is already showing promise for the long-term future of the Golden State’s badly battered Republicans. The two survivors of June’s statewide Jungle Primary are Jerry Brown, heavily favored to break Earl Warren’s record by winning his overall fourth term as governor, and 41-year-old Republican Neel Kashkari, a pro-immigration, pro–gay marriage “different kind of Republican.” A practicing Hindu and the son of Indian academics, Kashkari could easily have lost a Republicans-only contest to anti-immigration hardliner Tim Donelly, but he prevailed handily in the open primary with the help of votes from Independents, the unaffiliated, and a sprinkling of disillusioned Democrats. No one expects him to vanquish the 76-year-old incumbent in November, considering Brown’s deep roots in California (including a previous two terms that began a full 40 years ago, plus his father’s two terms commencing 16 years before that, at the end of the Johnson-Warren-Knowland era). But if Kashkari acquits himself well in his current campaign, he can not only help the party in down-ticket races, he can also build his own brand for future contests without a nostalgic relic on the ballot.
Several of the GOP’s youthful frontrunners for the 2016 presidential nomination seem well-suited to play a similar role in re-energizing the party in California. It should be possible to stigmatize Hillary Clinton as a Washington insider and predictable, hyper-partisan hack, allowing the Republican ticket to claim the above-politics, bipartisan stance always effective for winning the Golden State. One of the fresh faces on the GOP bench—such as the quirky libertarian Rand Paul, or the antiestablishment, pro-immigration reformer Marco Rubio, or the energetic, idea-generating technocrat Bobby Jindal—could shock the world by forcing a somewhat competitive race on the left coast. Additionally, the last two names could generate special enthusiasm in two of the state’s largest voting blocs. Asian-American voters, for instance, may not yet play a decisive role on the national scene, but they represented 11 percent of the California electorate in 2012 and will command a larger percentage in 2016.
Looking ahead to that crucial contest, a GOP victory in the Golden State remains an undeniable long shot. Still, a preemptive decision to write off California once again would force Republicans into yet another desperate, do-or-die bid to sweep the purple-state trifecta (Florida, Ohio, and Virginia), plus Colorado or New Hampshire or Nevada, or some other random state that Democrats haven’t already nailed down. If California’s 55 electoral votes actually left the Democratic column, the GOP could win without running the table.
Making the West Coast a serious battleground again will require a prodigious investment of money and effort, but it will also force Democrats to scramble their comfortable, complacent big-state strategy. With California secure and uncontested, Democrats can settle back for a confident defense of their current Electoral College advantage; without the Golden State safely in the liberal column, the party of Barack and Hillary might begin to experience its own era of hungry wandering in the political wilderness.