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There’s a reason why Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan adored San Diego so much that they called us their “Lucky City” and loved to hold rallies here: We lavished Republicans with votes almost as much as the perennial GOP ultra-stronghold of Orange County.
I did the math: In the 20th century’s 25 presidential elections, San Diego County only went six times for Democrats – four times for Franklin Roosevelt and once each for Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton, both in fluke three-way races. The rest of the time, we gave a thumbs-down to Truman, kicked Kerry and Kennedy to the curb, and called Carter a cab. We even supported landmark losers Barry Goldwater and Bob Dole.
Now, the final 2020 election totals are in. San Diego County went for Joe Biden, and so did California and the nation via the Electoral College, which included five electors from San Diego County. The local numbers reveal just how much our local politics have transformed within less than a generation: Biden got a higher percentage of the vote here (60 percent) than any Democrat since FDR’s 1936 landslide victory smack in the middle of the Depression. We’re far from ultra-liberal San Francisco territory (which went 85 percent for Biden) or even Los Angeles County (71 percent for Biden). But Dems have now won our county four presidential elections in a row, and it hasn’t been close.
What happened? Call it the Los Angelization of Southern California. We, along with Orange County, now look a lot more like L.A. and vote a lot more like L.A.
For perspective about this huge shift, I turned to Jim Newton, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and editor who’s now an author and professor at UCLA.
Newton began covering Orange County for the Times in 1989, and he remembers hearing that the O.C. would turn blue at some point. His response? As if. “I imagined that happening sometime in my grandchildren’s lifetime,” he said.
After all, Orange County was long known for being a rock-ribbed, arch-conservative, burn-the-commies-style Republican county. In the 20th century, it was reliably the reddest major county in the state during presidential elections. San Diego County usually wasn’t far behind in the red zone, but our GOP brand was a bit different: “San Diego had a reputation for center-right, Pete Wilson-y Republicans,” Newton said. (We still do. See: Faulconer, Kevin.)
But something changed in 2008. Barack Obama won San Diego County, and we’ve been blue ever since. Orange County took a while to catch up with us, but it did in 2016 and 2020, going for Hillary Clinton and Biden.
Newton thinks two big changes are responsible: the rise of the environmental movement and the rise of Latino voters.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Republicans who worried about the environment – such as those who lived along the coast – had a home in their party, he said. Nixon, after all, was quite green on environmental issues. But then the GOP drifted toward big business. Now, Newton said, “it’s hard to take the environment seriously and associate with the Republican Party. It’s certainly cost the Republican Party support statewide.”
As for Latinos, Newton said their growth in the state has greatly benefited the Democrats. “It did not have to be that way. There’s a moment when George W. Bush was running for presidency, and in his early presidency, when the idea of compassionate conservativism was an attempt to persuade Latinos that there was a place in the Republican Party for them,” he said.
But that moment didn’t last, and Wilson’s earlier endorsement as governor of the anti-immigrant Prop. 187 deeply damaged the party, Newton said. “Wilson takes great umbrage at that. He feels that’s really an unfair characterization, and I’ve heard him talk about it a lot. Unfortunately, it happens to be true that the Republican Party has become associated with deportation and intolerance in California,” he said.
Could our county change its political shade? It’s not likely, Newton said. Then again, he said the same thing about Orange County three decades years ago, not long after its voters in 1988 went for George H.W. Bush over Michael Dukakis by a stunning 68 percent to 31 percent, the highest margin in the state. It may take time, but political worlds shift.
Bonus: When California VP Hopefuls Were Progressive GOPers
If the Electoral College and the courts will it, Kamala Harris will be only the second vice president in U.S. history from California. The other is Nixon. (Fun fact: A late friend of my mom dated Tricky Dick in Whittier back in the 1930s and said he was boring and full of himself. She sure dodged a bullet there.)
We’ve had two other Californians on the ballot in the VP slot, both progressive Republicans – a breed that’s as extinct as a dodo bird. One was cantankerous then-Gov. Hiram Johnson, who ran on the Progressive/Bull Moose ticket in 1912 with former President Theodore Roosevelt.
The other Golden State VP hopeful was Johnson ally and fellow California Gov. Earl Warren, who was Thomas Dewey’s running mate in 1948. Newton, who’s written a book about Warren, said many observers believe he could have won the presidency if he’d been at the top of the ticket.
Now try to wrap your idea around the idea of “progressive Republicans.” I’ll wait. Newton, though, says they were indeed real and “extremely important in national and Republican politics from the early 1900s until the 1950s.” They believed in Main Street/middle-class values and good government: Johnson helped lead the movement to give California voters the power to fire elected officials and put measures on the ballot. Some, like Johnson, were isolationists who wanted the U.S. to mind its own business as much as possible and stay out of world affairs.
So what happened to our wannabe VPs? Johnson went on to become a U.S. senator from California for nearly 30 years. And the mild-mannered Warren became a hugely influential chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Just goes to show you that you can do just fine after losing a race for veep, a job once described by an occupant as “not worth a bucket of warm spit.”