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State's Geography Hews Party Line

Democrats tighten their hold on the seaside while the GOP increases its dominion inland. The widening breach reflects national trends.

September 08, 2004|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

Barely 100 miles separate the day-to-day lives of Santa Monica office manager Harriet Orinstein and Bakersfield teacher Andre Casillas. Yet these two Californians hold wildly different views that illustrate the state's two political worlds.

Orinstein, a 52-year-old vegetarian who votes for Democrats and Greens, lives with her boyfriend in a rent-controlled, one-bedroom apartment near the beach. She opposes the Iraq war and supports same-sex marriage and abortion rights. She loathes President Bush.

"I wouldn't vote for him if he was the last person on Earth," she said.

Casillas, a 37-year-old conservative Republican who owns a Bakersfield tract house with his wife, supports the war. To him, same-sex marriage and legal abortion are wrong. An evangelical Christian, he goes to church every Sunday. Bush's religious faith inspires him.

"He prays before he makes decisions, and that's important to me," Casillas said.

These contrasting sentiments capture not only the national polarization that has defined the 2004 presidential campaign, but the increasingly distinct split between the two Californias: coastal and inland.

Over the last decade, Republican influence has grown more concentrated in conservative inland California -- largely the Central Valley and Inland Empire but also the Antelope Valley, the Sierra and rural north. Since 2000, Republicans have outpaced Democrats in signing up new voters in the burgeoning communities around Sacramento, Stockton, Modesto, San Bernardino and Riverside.

At the same time, Democrats have strengthened their domination of counties along California's coastline, building overwhelming advantages in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas as Latino voters have expanded the party's base. And from San Diego's beachfront suburbs to the Central Coast, Democrats have eroded Republican support among moderates, especially women.

In some ways, California's east-west split reflects America's larger cultural divide. And like the national breach, it is playing out strikingly in the presidential race. The state's coastal counties lean strongly against Bush's reelection while inland California favors the president over his Democratic rival, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, polls show.

"The division of the United States is right here in California," said Tony Quinn, co-editor of California Target Book, a nonpartisan election guide.

Among the reasons cited by political analysts: Urban areas, which favor Democrats nationally, are mainly on the coastal side of California. Also, coastal voters tend to back strong environmental protection measures championed by Democrats. The conservative stands on social issues that the national Republican Party has embraced resonate with many inland Californians, but alienate others on the coast.

With close to two-thirds of California's 36 million residents crowded into coastal regions, the state's division tilts heavily in the Democrats' favor. In statewide races, Republican victories have been rare, and one of the party's main roles has been simply to keep Democrats from drifting too far to the left.

"Clearly, the Democrats have an advantage. But it's not permanent, and no one should assume it is," said Roy Behr, a campaign strategist for U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Bay Area Democrat up for reelection in November.

Boxer's race against Republican Bill Jones of Fresno illustrates the fault line. An August poll of likely voters by the Public Policy Institute of California found Jones, an ex-secretary of state for California, running 6 points ahead of Boxer in inland California, but 25 points behind on the coast and around San Francisco Bay. The upshot: a 17-point statewide lead for Boxer.

In the race for the White House, both major parties see California as solid Democratic turf. The state functions mainly as a detour to scrape up donations between campaign stops in more closely contested areas.

Although Democratic now, not long ago California was a key part of the Republican calculus for victory in presidential campaigns. Republicans won the state in every race from 1952 to 1988, with the sole exception of Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson's national landslide victory in 1964. Bill Clinton ushered in the Democratic dominance by ending his party's 28-year drought here in 1992, a position he and Al Gore reinforced in 1996 and 2000.

The question that bedevils political professionals is what happens next.

In the last four years, the state's population has grown by nearly 2 million, and demographers project an additional 3 million residents by 2010. The surge promises profound but unpredictable consequences for California politics.

Could it tighten the Democrats' grip on the state? Or does the concentration of growth in the conservatives' inland strongholds offer hope to Republicans for a revival more broad-based than the extraordinary election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor in the 2003 recall?

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