The Prop 187 Effect: How the California GOP lost their way and implications for 2014 and beyond

According to polling data from the California Field Poll, after winning the presidential election in 1980, former California Governor Ronald Reagan raised his share of the Latino vote from 35% to 45% in 1984 while carrying 59% of the entire state.  Republicans went on to win the Golden state again in 1988. Since that election, three significant changes have reshaped California politics in a manner that has made the Republican Party nearly irrelevant:

1. The Latino share of the total California electorate has dramatically increased.

2. California Republicans embarked on an anti-immigrant agenda that alienated Latino voters and drove them into the open arms of the Democratic Party.

3. Republicans are unable to compete for California’s 55 Electoral College votes, which amounts to 20% of the total 270 necessary to win a presidential election.

As the Latino voter population grows across other states, and a rigorous debate unfolds about immigration reform, we take this opportunity to revisit lessons learned from California. How did California go from a Republican stronghold to a Democratic lock? The answer is clear – anti-immigrant policy and a frustrated and mobilized Latino vote.  In a comprehensive review of academic research published in political science journals and public opinion polling and surveys from 1994 to 2013, Latino Decisions senior analysts Dr. David Damore and Dr. Adrian Pantoja, detail what they call “The Prop 187 Effect.” [Full report | PPT slide deck]

It is now well established in both the political science research community and real world campaign politics that the mid-1990s Pete Wilson era of California Republicanism was a historic turning point in the state’s politics.  Prop. 187, the infamous anti-immigrant ballot measure, which was championed by then Governor Pete Wilson in his re-election bid, resulted in significant backlash and political mobilization among California Latino voters. Following Prop. 187 were additional anti-immigrant measures such as Prop. 209 and Prop. 227 that proposed to outlaw affirmative action and bilingual education. Since 1996 when Latinos first comprised more than 10% of the state electorate, Latino partisanship has grown to over 70% Democratic.  In light of these dynamics, it is little wonder that California has become an easy win for the Democrats?

Take for example a comparison of California then and now.  In 1994 the GOP held 26 of 52 (50%) U.S. House seats in the California delegation.  Today they hold just 15 of 53 (28%).  From 1948 until 1992 Republicans won California in 9 of 10 presidential elections.  From 1992 to 2012 Democrats have swept 6 of 6 presidential elections.  Below, we make the case that this was primarily due to the Latino vote.
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Prop 187 and the Pete Wilson years had two effects that shifted the state dramatically to the Democrats.  First, the number of Latino voters grew quickly in response to perceived attacks on the Latino community.  In comparison to other states that did not experience the same anti-immigrant environment such as Texas or New York, the research clearly demonstrates that Latino voter registration in California increased must faster than anticipated by population growth alone.  Second, during the mid-1990s extensive research documents a increase in Latino votes for the Democratic party in California that was sustained throughout the 2000s.  Not only did more Latinos start voting, they started voting heavily against the Republican Party.

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Today, the national Republican Party is facing the same crossroads the California GOP faced in 1994.  However the national GOP has the benefit of hindsight — being able to evaluate how the Prop 187 era anti-immigrant politics impacted the GOP’s viability in California.  The short answer is that Prop 187 and Pete Wilson devastated Republican success.  Sixteen years after the historic 1994 election the Wilson/187 effect was long lasting in the Brown-Whitman gubernatorial election.  In a September 2010 survey of California Latino voters Latino Decisions asked whether or not it was “concerning” that Pete Wilson was appointed campaign co-chair for Meg Whitman in 2010.  Overall, 84% of Latinos in 2010 were somewhat or very concerned about Pete Wilson’s involvement.  This should serve as a reminder to the national GOP that the statements and positions taken today could have long lasting effects on Latino voters if they are seen as negative and severe as the Wilson/187 policies back in 1994.

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Latino Decisions analysis finds 44 GOP held House districts in which the Latino voting-age population exceeds the 2012 margin of victory for the Republican incumbent.  Among these, 24 are classified as having a high level of Latino influence because the Latino voter population is large and growing and the 2012 congressional election was quite close.  Within this list we identify 14 tier 1 districts that are the most likely to flip from red to blue due to a sizable Latino electorate and very close election results.  For example Colorado 6 was decided by just 2 points in 2012 and is about 17% Latino.  Florida 10 went Republican by just 3 percent and is more than 14% Latino.  In California the 10th district is more than 35% Latino the GOP incumbent held on by just 5 points.

The 14 dots in light blue are the current GOP districts most vulnerable to Latino backlash in 2014.  The 10 dots in purple are critical toss-up districts with a growing Latino population, and the remaining 20 dots in light red are the next wave of battleground districts that will slip away from the GOP in coming elections if they do not depart from their current anti-immigrant path.

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According to Latino Decisions polling in 2013 an overwhelming majority say they will blame the Republican Party if immigration reform does not pass.  When read recent statements by Republicans Steve King or Jeff Sessions, over 70% of Latino voters say it makes them less favorable towards the Republican Party as a whole.  Over 60% of Latino voters say they personally know an undocumented immigrant, and for one in three Latino voters they have an undocumented immigrant in their family.  It is no wonder that the immigration issue has become so salient and so personal to a large portion of the Latino electorate.

However a path forward still exists for Republicans.  If John Boehner allows a House vote on a comprehensive immigration reform bill that includes a path to citizenship 62% of Latinos say they will view the GOP more favorably.  When hearing Paul Ryan’s stand on immigration reform taken directly from his congressional website: “We need to offer people a path to earned legalization and a chance to earn citizenship. We should welcome anyone who is willing to take that pledge and who shares that commitment to our country, but we must also ensure fairness to those who have followed the law,” 74% of Latino have a more favorable view of the Republican Party.  The research detailed in The Prop 187 Effect report is clear, if Republicans position themselves as an anti-immigrant party, the next generation of Latino voters will find themselves aligned against the GOP in 2014, in 2024 and perhaps another decade after that.

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