Sunday Commentary: Will the Nation Undergo Tectonic Shifts Like California Did Two Decades Ago?

It was interesting reading Dan Walters’ column in The Sacramento Bee this morning.  He makes a critical but unintended point – by illustrating where Senator Feinstein was in 1994 versus today.

First he quotes the senator in March: “I couldn’t be more disappointed that President Trump has used his first budget proposal to prioritize the border wall – his pet project – and a deportation force over critical support for state and local law enforcement.”

Twenty-three years ago, when Feinstein ran for senate reelection against Michael Huffington, “she was singing a different tune.”

“While Congressman Huffington voted against new border guards, Dianne Feinstein led the fight to stop illegal immigration,” her TV campaign ad at the time declared.

Politicians, right?  Well yeah, sort of.

But, as Mr. Walters points out, Ms. Feinstein “was pretty much in synch with California voters in 1994.  They not only re-elected her but passed Proposition 187 to deny public benefits to those in the country illegally, and re-elected Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, a Proposition 187 backer, over Kathleen Brown, Gov. Jerry Brown’s sister.”

And as he pointed out, Senator Feinstein “is also pretty much in synch with California voters today.”

He cites the new IGS Poll from Berkeley which “found that Californians strongly support giving undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship, oppose Trump’s plans to build a wall, and narrowly favor local communities’ declaring themselves to be sanctuaries and refusing to cooperate with immigration authorities.”

The year 1994 doesn’t seem that long ago – although none of my current interns were even born then – but what has happened is a massive tectonic shift in California’s politics.

It’s easy to forget that California voted for George Bush in 1998.  In 1990, it elected Pete Wilson as governor over Diane Feinstein.  Then in 1992, Bill Clinton would win, as would Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer for U.S. Senate – though the latter by a razor thin margin.

However, in 1994, the state reelected a previously extremely unpopular Pete Wilson over Jerry Brown’s sister (remember her brother and father were previous governors) – it swept Republicans into constitutional office, it passed Proposition 187 overwhelmingly, and Diane Feinstein barely survived the most expensive senate race in history to that date.

I still remember talking to Sacramento political consultants – the Republicans had just won the assembly, barely, but Willie Brown managed to briefly hold onto power – and consultants were stating that they could not count to 40 let alone 41 in 1996.

A funny thing happened though – while Prop. 187 won easily, the entire state shifted in 1996.  Not only did the Democrats re-take the assembly, they did so by a comfortable margin and they would never look back.  Since 1996, the only major statewide race the Republicans would win was Arnold Schwarzenegger.

What happened?  The Prop. 187 threat mobilized Latino voters and California went from a Republican state to a swing state by the early 1990s, to a safe Democratic state ever since.

The point, I think, a lot of people miss 20 years later is that no one really saw this coming.  Maybe polling was not as pervasive back then, but seasoned veterans in Sacramento did not believe that there would be a Latino vote surge.

Prop. 187 transformed Latino voters as well.  Prior to 1994, Latinos were not a reliable Democratic vote. In fact, the Diane Feinsteins of the world capitulated on immigration issues.  But Latinos saw clearly saw the more conservative and more anti-immigration Republican party as the greater threat, and now Latino voters look far more like African American voters than ever before.

Will 2018 see, as in 1996, a similar shift in the nation as a whole?  That is going to be the most interesting question and, just as the polls really did not predict the Trump presidency, polls might not be our best guide here either.

Trump won because he won blue collar voters much more heavily than his predecessor, but he also won because Democratic voters who had come out for Obama stayed home this time.

There are a lot of questions still to be answered, but a big one will be whether people of color, and in particular Hispanics and Muslims, are mobilized and come out heavily in key swing states like never before.

You can ask – why didn’t they come out heavily before this?  Well, for one thing Hillary Clinton was a damaged and uninspiring candidate.  But another thing is that, for a lot of people, they thought Trump was going to be more bluster than threat.

The first two and a half months of his presidency shows, if anything, he intends to follow through on his promises from the campaign.

Will there be a backlash and a seismic shift in our nation’s politics?  That remains to be determined.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Keith O

    A fact from the poll that the Vanguard didn’t illustrate:


    Nevertheless, by a 53% to 47% margin, slightly more voters prefer that when state leaders disagree with the president they should try to work with him even if it means making compromises, rather than opposing him if it risks negative consequences and losses in federal funding. 

    1. David Greenwald

      But you’re missing the point of my piece – the California case in 1996 – didn’t show up in the polls.  People who were not previously voters simply came out and voted.

  2. Keith O

    narrowly favor local communities’ declaring themselves to be sanctuaries and refusing to cooperate with immigration authorities.


    But that’s just part of the story, what is left out is the IGS poll goes on to show:


    “However, when the issue is framed in terms of allowing cities and counties the right to ignore requests from federal authorities to detain illegal immigrants who have been arrested and are about to be released, voters are opposed 53% to 47%.”

    “In addition, the poll finds that about one in five voters who initially favor sanctuary city policies say they would be less supportive if the federal government significantly reduces federal funding to these cities, as has been proposed by the President.”

    1. Robb Davis

      Perhaps off topic but just let me say that there is NO jurisdiction in the US that will not honor a duly executed warrant by another jurisdiction (federal or other) to hold someone.  A warrant, signed by a judge or magistrate, is a legal statement of probable cause and NO jurisdiction will release someone for whom a warrant has been issued.  So this is a total non-issue.

      ICE detainers are NOT warrants and honoring them could lead to people being held beyond the time permitted by the crime they are charged with.  This could lead to 4th Amendment violations.

      Most people responding to these polls do not understand what is going on with ICE, with detainers, with warrants, etc.  The Trump administration is acting irresponsibly on these matters.

  3. Don Shor

    It’s not just minority voters that are energized against Trump. Democrats as a whole are. And he’s doing nothing to expand past his base. Overall mid-term elections nearly always favor the party out of power, with G. W. Bush the lone exception after 9/11. If the Republicans actually manage to take health care away from millions of people and then hand a massive tax cut to the wealthy, incumbents will have a very hard time.

  4. Howard P

    I believe there is another shift happening… glacially slow, but perhaps inexorable… already been happening in CA…

    If the current Admin and both Houses of Congress keep playing games, making faces at each other, instead of dealing with healthcare, budget, etc., many current incumbents will won’t be around 4 years from now… regardless of party affiliation.

    A viable third party may even emerge.

    Not asking you to research this, Don, but a similar chart showing % of incumbents who failed to get re-elected (taking out those who chose not to run) could be very interesting…

    Congress and the prez need to get to “work”, instead of focusing on sound-bites and tweets…

    Remember, in CA, “independents”/minor parties is the only growing “party”… at least from the numbers I’ve seen published.  Incumbent Democrats in CA, and Republicans at the Fed level, need to get to work, or hear the “you’re fired!” line…

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