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Shift Toward the Left Takes Firm Hold

Conservative traditions continue to fade as demographics push beyond national trends.


With a sweeping endorsement of many Democratic candidates and issues, California voters Tuesday reasserted the moderation that has eclipsed the state's once-dominant conservative bearing and continues to propel it to the left of the nation.

With a substantial portion of the vote counted, the state was backing the Democratic ticket of Al Gore and Joseph I. Lieberman, albeit not quite as strongly as it did its adopted favorite son, Bill Clinton, during his romping reelection in 1996. That was despite Republican nominee George W. Bush's regular campaigning here, his multimillion-dollar ad campaign and Gore's complete absence from the airwaves during the general election campaign.

The rebuke for a Republican-backed plan to adopt school vouchers and the apparent support for a plan that lowered the percentage of voters needed to adopt school bonds--according to partial returns--indicated the distance the state has moved from the line it drew in the sand a generation ago, the tax-cutting Proposition 13, which resulted in cuts in funding to public schools. And the broad lead for a measure that would send drug convicts into treatment centers instead of prison was another break from the tough-on-crime traditions of the past.

Those results, as well as Democratic incumbent Dianne Feinstein's decisive victory in the U.S. Senate race, underscored the dramatic political realignment that has taken place in California.

It has been powered by potent demographic changes in the state. Once largely white and dependent on conservative industries such as defense, California is now a multiethnic mix, less rural and urban than suburban. Many of its new residents and workers have gravitated here because of jobs in less ideological sectors such as high-tech.

The most disappointing factor in Bush's California effort may have been his showing among Latinos, who now make up almost one in seven California voters. While he sponsored Latino-themed events and sprinkled his appearances with exhortations in Spanish every time he came to California, Bush did little better among Latinos than 1996 nominee Bob Dole or 1998 gubernatorial nominee Dan Lungren.

That finding suggested the continued distrust among California's Latinos for any Republican, including one who has run strongly among minorities in his home state of Texas. That animosity stemmed from the party's embrace in the mid-1990s of measures against illegal immigration, which prompted a massive voter registration effort among the state's Latinos, and has profound implications as the state's minority population grows.

Besides suffering from changes in the state's ethnic make-up, Republicans also are victims of age: Many of the men and women who formed the GOP bulwark in past decades have died or retired to nearby states, leaving behind children who have a less conservative bent and who tend to swing between the parties.

"You add those together, and see which way it goes," said Republican strategist Tony Quinn.

Voters here are not hurtling headlong into the Democratic fold, analysts from both parties agree. The close vote on Proposition 39, the education bond measure that lowered the percentage of voters who need to agree to float a local school bond, refuted any notion of a liberal resurgence.

Indeed, the fastest-growing voter group in California is not an organized party but "decline to state"--voters who have deliberately not aligned themselves with a party. Since 1980, "decline to state" voters have leaped from 9.4% of the electorate to 14.2% this year. At the same time, Democratic registration has dropped from 53.2% to 45.5%, while Republican registration has remained nearly constant at almost 35%, after peaking at 38.6% in 1988.

Those independent voters, combined with moderate swing voters from both parties, make for a potent and somewhat unpredictable mass.

"California is essentially a centrist state," said Dan Schnur, a Republican consultant based in San Francisco. "We have a much larger number of independent voters than most states and we tend to elect the more centrist candidate. The [future] demographic changes are simply going to reinforce this trend toward the political center."

In the last several years, Democratic candidates have been quicker to take advantage of the demographic trends, moving to the center in the last decade on issues like capital punishment, welfare reform and pro-business measures.

The Democratic Party is so dominant today in California that it can be difficult to remember just how broad the Republican reach was until recently. From the 1952 election until Clinton's first victory here in 1992, Democrats won only one of nine presidential contests in California. The exception was the 1964 national blowout by Lyndon Johnson.

Until Gray Davis won the governorship in 1998, Republicans had held it for four consecutive terms, and six of the past eight.

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