Shifting demographics alter state's political landscape

By Sara Grossman | Staff

Since its inception, California has been a magnet for seekers of the American Dream, and as more immigrants flock to achieve it, a new political paradigm is being shaped in the Golden State.

Whereas the state has classically been characterized by visions of the sunkissed blonde, a diverse set of new faces has been added to the mix in the last few decades. The recent signing of California's DREAM Act testifies to the changing distribution of political power that has followed the state's shifting demographics.

In keeping with the intense partisanship that has for decades characterized California's votes on issues of immigration, Republicans immediately lashed out in opposition to the bill while Democrats pushed it through the legislature.

As the parties continue to adhere to divergent ideologies, each side is gambling its future with a different segment of the population: Democrats look to the growing pool of minority voters while Republicans continue to draw support from their largely conservative, white base.

"Right now the Democratic Party is looking out there and wondering, ‘Who's our future?'" said John Ellwood, a professor in the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy. "The demographics are on the side of the Democrats."

Demographic shifts, party struggles

While white voters have had the greatest electoral influence throughout California's history, that may be changing as the state's minority population continues to grow, largely from immigration — both legal and otherwise.

California's Hispanic and Asian populations have exploded in the last decade alone and by 2020 Hispanics — who by and large support the act — are projected to become the largest ethnic group in the state, according to the state Department of Finance.

A recent poll conducted by the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Times shows that while 55 percent of the state's voters oppose the DREAM Act, there is also a deep racial divide between respondents. Sixty-six percent of whites polled opposed the act, but among the growing Latino vote, an overwhelming 79 percent of respondents supported it.

As this shift occurs, the political calculus in the state will have to be rethought.

California's major political parties are hedging very different bets with regards to the state's voters. The Democratic Party is actively courting minority groups as Republicans continue to hold on to their traditionally Anglo base — while also relying on the fact that Hispanics do not vote as often as their white counterparts.

But as more minorities — many the sons and daughters of immigrants — gain political clout, California Republicans have found themselves in a disadvantaged position, said Ellwood.

He pointed to the contentious 1994 election in which incumbent Gov. Pete Wilson won reelection by running on a hard-line anti-illegal immigration platform. Wilson championed Proposition 187, which made it illegal to give social services like medical care and access to public education to undocumented immigrants. The measure was overwhelmingly approved by voters, passing with 58.9 percent of the vote.

Wilson's message had a great deal of appeal to white voters, and he easily won the election, riding the tide of anti-illegal immigrant sentiment. But Ellwood said the stance was short-sighted.

"(California) Republicans made a strategic mistake in the 90's and have not been able to escape it," he said. "They won the battle but lost the war."

But Roy Beck, Executive Director of NumbersUSA, an immigrant-reduction organization, argued that there is no reason harsher immigration policies should alienate minority voters. He said that illegal immigrants hurt these populations, especially blacks and Hispanics, the most, as illegal immigrants tend to compete for the same jobs. Illegal immigrants are therefore providing greater competition to minority individuals who are here legally than would be otherwise, he added.

"I think that exactly how Hispanic voters will play out on this issue (of illegal immigration) remains to be seen," he said.

Beck did emphasize, however, that the current immigration problems are not related to race, but rather to numbers.

"Almost every problem that comes from Hispanic immigration right now was also a problem with German immigration, European immigration," he said. "(The current problems) are not related to that — they're related to when (immigration) numbers get so high.

Fighting for the Hispanic vote

While many have written off the GOP as staunch traditionalists unwilling to reach out to minority citizens, many Republicans say they can still appeal to some Hispanic voters.

Tirso del Junco, chairman of the California Republican Party in the early 1980s and 1990s, said that Republicans are actively courting independent Hispanics and more conservative Hispanic Democrats.

"The perception is that the Republican party has lost the Hispanic vote," he said. "(The GOP) just needs 40, 45 percent of the Hispanic vote — they don't need a majority."

Del Junco is one of four individuals proposing a state bill that would effectively negate the effects of the DREAM Act, called the "California Taxpayer Protection Act of 2012."

Immigrants as a whole tend to be entrepreneurial and socially conservative, traits that the political right extols. However, with strong anti-immigrant sentiment radiating from the GOP, immigrants to California are flocking in droves to the political left, said Kevin Johnson, dean of the UC Davis School of Law, who specializes in immigration law and policy.

But, he added, this political scenario is more complex than it may seem on the surface.

"Latino voters are not naturally liberal when it comes to social issues (like) abortion, church and state and crime," Johnson said. "(There isn't any) lock on the Latino electorate by Democratic politicians, but right now it's a tough sale for Republicans who want to appear tough on immigration."

Johnson noted that Gov. Jerry Brown is especially popular with Hispanic voters, as he has shown support in the past for addressing important issues within their communities. Notably, he was the first governor to appoint a Hispanic justice to the California Supreme Court during his first term in office. He also passed legislation allowing farm workers, who are prominently Hispanic, the right to unionize.

However, del Junco emphasized an important distinction between legal Hispanic voters and illegal Hispanic immigrants, arguing that a large portion of Hispanics are illegal, making them ineligible to vote and therefore unable to affect real political change.

"Most of the surveys that you see published in the paper include illegal immigrants," he said. "I haven't seen any studies that include the Hispanic legal vote only."

Although running on an anti-immigration platform has been successful for politicians in the past, with such drastic demographic shifts, this may no longer be the case.

Ultimately, it is clear that both parties want power, and in California, political influence is quickly swinging towards minorities. With their support of the DREAM Act, Democrats are making a bet with an eye toward a multicultural future.