Orange County politics has been a bit behind the times.
While political parties nationally have found their influence shrinking, Orange County's GOP maintained a reputation for loyalty, still passing down its affiliation from generation to generation. Many GOP voters still cast a straight Republican ticket in Orange County simply because it is Republican.
Today, Orange County Republicans are reassessing their role. Because in Tuesday's election, just more than two in five of the county's voters cast a ballot for a sitting Republican President.
It was no longer enough that he was a Republican.
George Bush's support in Orange County was lower than any Republican presidential candidate in 56 years. And it was the lowest score for any statewide GOP candidate in Orange County since Republican Bruce Gleason lost a landslide race for attorney general in 1986.
But if Tuesday's election highlighted a shift in the county's political landscape, observers said Wednesday that it was not a move from the Republican ranks to Democrats as much as it was from Republican to "other."
Political officials from both parties said it appears that a significant chunk of the county's Republican population broke ranks with its party, but those in that group couldn't bring themselves to vote for the Democratic enemy.
Instead, they boosted independent candidate Ross Perot's vote in Orange County to an impressive 24%, higher than the maverick Texan scored in national or state returns.
"That's the stunning news in Orange County," Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) said. "What this shows me is anger at the process. . . . It's almost like there ain't a dime's worth of difference between the two major parties."
Democrats celebrated the returns Tuesday night, claiming a new beginning for their party in California's seemingly invincible Republican stronghold. But largely, the support for Democratic candidates did not vary much from historical patterns.
Even though Bush's support was far below Republican norms, Democrat Bill Clinton's return was actually almost equal to the 1988 tally for his predecessor, Michael S. Dukakis. Both Democrats scored 31% in Orange County, about 3% below their party's share of the county electorate.
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Barbara Boxer also failed to reach the Democrats' level of 35% registration in Orange County on Tuesday. And all six of the county's Republican congressional candidates scored higher than their party's share of voters in their districts.
Still, most of the congressional candidates received less support than they have in previous elections because an exceptionally high number of voters backed third-party candidates.
In Dornan's race, Libertarian candidate Richard G. Newhouse gained 9% of the vote, about eight times the party's share of voters in the district. Dornan said he was shocked.
"Those 7,000 votes that I was hoping would come to me are all Perot people who went to the third name on the ballot," Dornan said. "And what a nice name--Newhouse, as in 'new House of Representatives.' "
Orange County Democratic Chairman Howard Adler said he was excited about the political developments he saw in Tuesday's election returns. But he also said that while it might represent an opportunity for the Democratic Party, there has not yet been transition of power from the Republicans.
"I honestly can't say there is a great shift toward Democrats, but there is a movement away from Republicans," Adler said. "We're not going to change things overnight, but I think the bloom is off the Republican rose. That is the significant story of 1992."
Orange County Republican leaders had their own spin on Tuesday's results, insisting that the GOP control is undiminished.
As evidence, they cite the performance of the county's congressional and legislative delegations, where all the Republican incumbents were reelected as well as four newcomers. Several said Bush's problems in Orange County did not reflect a weakness in the party, but in the candidate.
"Bush was going to lose because of his own ineptitude in running a campaign and his own record when the world zeroed in on his domestic experience," said Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach).
Dornan added: "They ran the worst campaign I've ever seen in my life. I still really like George Bush, but I've never been so frustrated."
Orange County Republican Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes said the bottom line is that the Republican candidates won in Orange County, not the Democrats. Those GOP candidates who didn't win by a wide margin suffered because of national trends, not a weakness in the county Republican Party, he said.
"I think we had a sensational day in Orange County," Fuentes said. "It was a clean sweep."