Is one former Republican stronghold in deep blue California a suburban bellwether?

If you’ve been keeping up with recent coverage of the 2020 presidential election, you might have noticed that pollsters, pundits, reporters, and the rest of the chatting classes are paying close attention to the suburbs.

This is happening for a few reasons. First, nationwide racial justice protests have prompted comparisons between now and the summer of 1968. Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April of 1968, riots broke out in more than 100 cities across the United States, with some persisting for days at a time.

Backlash against the riots, particularly among white suburbanites, is credited by some with delivering the presidency to Richard Nixon, who ran on a tough on crime, “Law and Order” message. If that message sounds familiar, it’s probably because President Trump has made no secret of his attempt to emulate Nixon’s 1968 playbook in response to ongoing protests over police brutality.

 

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While some are cautioning against looking for neat historical parallels, few doubt the electoral significance of the suburbs. After all, suburban voters helped deliver Democrats the House of Representatives 2018, thanks in large part to defections from suburban women 

While political observers keep their eyes fixed on the suburbs, Orange County California is one particular suburban region to watch. While the results in Orange County will have no impact on the Electoral College in deep blue California, the down-ballot results could be a bellwether of the suburban mood nationwide.

Formerly a conservative Republican stronghold – the birthplace of Nixon and the birthplace of Ronald Reagan’s career – Orange County was home to more Democrats than Republicans last year for the first time since a short period in 1978 following Watergate.

In the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats flipped four House seats in Orange County; they now hold all seven seats in the region. That Democrats swept the congressional delegation in a county that has long resisted the political tailwinds of the state in which it is located – a county some have called the “Orange Curtain” – seems to signify a real shift.

What caused the shift? Some say that the necessary components for a political changing of the guard were already in place before 2018 due to the area’s evolving demographic composition. 

Last summer, the Orange County Register reported that in just the previous three years, the number of Latinos registered to vote in Orange County has jumped 34%, as the younger Latino population aged into the electorate. Latinos now account for a little over one-fifth of the total electorate. A similar yet less dramatic shift has taken place with Asian Americans. Both of these demographics tend to vote for Democrats.

Furthermore, young voters in Orange County now squarely align with Democrats. In 2002, Republicans held a 42% to 29% registration advantage over Democrats with voters ages 18 to 34, regardless of race . Today, Democrats under the age of 34 outnumber their Republican counterparts 38% to 20%. 

Hillary Clinton won Orange County in 2016, and some believe that the polarizing effect of the Trump presidency kicked the downstream electoral impacts of demographic changes into high gear. 

In their own analysis of the 2018 midterm results in Orange County, the New York Times reported that “the results reflected what has been a nearly 40-year rise in the number of immigrants, nonwhite residents and college graduates that has transformed this iconic American suburb into a Democratic outpost.”

In this year’s March primary, Republican challenger Young Kim finished slightly ahead of 39th District incumbent Gil Cisneros, who turned the seat blue by beating Kim in a tight 2018 open race. Competitive general election contents are also taking shape Districts 48 and 49.

These races and the political dynamics of Orange County are worth monitoring. Results in suburbs like Orange County could weigh heavily on the minds of both Republican and Democratic Party elites as they seek to shape, or reshape, their coalitions around a changing electorate.