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Femininzation of California's Agenda

November 08, 1998|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the School of Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate University and a political analyst for KCAL-TV

The political decade, which began with the election of Republican Pete Wilson as governor, is ending with voters repudiating Wilson's politics and party. Issues, ideology and demographics shaped Wilson's victories. Now, they pose daunting obstacles for the state GOP.

According to a Los Angeles Times exit poll, in the 1990 general election, the most important issues for voters were abortion, crime and the economy. Abortion was a "women's issue": 33% of them named it as their most important concern, compared with only 17% of men. Even though Wilson is pro-choice, the abortion issue helped Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dianne Feinstein, but not enough to give her a victory.

The other dominant concerns then, crime and the economy, resonated with male voters, who constituted 54% of the electorate. These issues--and demographics--benefited Wilson.

The shellacking the GOP took last week wasn't due simply to Gov.-elect Gray Davis' success in neutralizing Republican ownership of these "male issues." Nor was it only the result of Sen. Barbara Boxer's ability, by spending a fortune on negative ads, to deflect those issues and commandeer the centrist stage by shoving her male opponent, Matt Fong, off it.

More important, the 1998 campaign slighted the issues that catapulted Wilson over Feinstein in 1990. To the chagrin and detriment of Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, crime didn't pay. According to The Times' exit poll taken last Tuesday, only 18% identified crime as the main reason behind their vote for governor.

Education, relegated to the status of a "women's issue" in 1990, dominated this year's political debate. Fully 47% of all poll respondents said that education was the most important issue in their choice for governor, including 44% of men and a whopping 51% of women surveyed.

This shift in issue importance has contributed to the "feminization" of California's political agenda over the past few elections. It reflects the increasing importance of women and the emerging clout of high-tech voters, the "wired electorate," who tend to be more moderate. In addition to education and abortion rights, their issues include gun control, health care and environmental protection. Democrats have better understood and exploited the power of this agenda.

In California, elections are won in the center. Throughout this decade, the ideological center has been expanding. Between 1990 and 1994, the percentage of Californians who identified themselves in Times exit polls as liberals dropped from 28% to 17%, a shift in the political winds that Democratic candidates began to tack against only after their drubbing in 1994. This year, 23% called themselves liberal.

The Times' exit poll in 1990 showed that 37% of state voters regarded themselves as somewhat or very conservative; 29% saw themselves as moderate. Four years later, the percentage of moderates increased to 46%, while the percentage of conservatives remained the same. That year, Wilson and Democrat Kathleen Brown virtually split the moderate vote in the governor's race. This year, the percentage of exit-poll respondents who identified themselves as conservative dropped to 34%. Of the 43% of voters who said they were moderates, nearly seven of 10 supported Davis.

On the threshold of 2000, Democrats have figured out that California is less liberal than their party used to be. As for the Republicans, they must recognize that California is more politically moderate than their activist core allows.

More than anything else, the inevitability of demographic change has the potential to rock Republican fortunes for the foreseeable future. The most stunning finding in this year's Times exit poll is that the share of white voters in the general electorate has dropped to 64%, the lowest recorded in a Times exit poll. The shrinking Anglo electorate corresponds to the rising political power of the state's minority population. It's also an indicator of "white flight" to neighboring states. Accordingly, it's no coincidence that the Rocky Mountain West is becoming more Republican and conservative.

In 1990, when Wilson was elected governor, the percentage of Anglos in the state's electorate was 77%; in 1994, it hit 81%. Both times, well over a majority of these voters gave the Republican governor their support. This year, for the first time in the three gubernatorial elections in the '90s, the Democratic nominee captured a majority of the white vote.

Latino participation has risen from 9% of the electorate in 1990, when about one in three voted for Wilson, to 13% this year, when fewer than one in four went to Lungren. The percentage of African Americans was 8% in 1990, when roughly nine of 10 backed Feinstein; this year, it rose to 13%, and nearly eight out of 10 supported Davis.

Clearly, Wilson's and his party's embrace of racially divisive wedge issues, like immigration and affirmative action, continues to cost them dearly among minority voters.

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