So, back in the 60s & 70s, California gave us Richard Nixon. In the 80s, President Reagan hailed from the state. At least as late as 1984, California was considered a safe Republican state. During my politically active life, however (I started caring late 80s and was eligible to vote in the early 90s), California has always been seen as one of the most liberal states in the union.

One would assume that as a microcosm of America, something as essential should at least be competitive - but I can't remember it ever being so.

So, what changed in the 80s to turn California Democrat, and what keeps it so solidly so, especially at the Presidential level?

Note: There has been a valid objection raised to the idea that California is a solidly Democratic state. Namely, what about Arnold Schwarzenegger?

  1. Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to be an exception rather than the rule. He won election after the recall of an unpopular governor, in a very, very crazy election

  2. He always had to deal with a hostile, Democratically controlled legislature

  3. Even now, that legislature has a super-majority of Democrats.

Even beyond Arnold Schwarzenegger, however:

  1. The state hasn't voted for a Republican in a statewide election since 1988. The Republican party hasn't even been competitive since then.
  2. The Senate Delegation is entirely Democrat, and very liberal at that.
  3. Nancy Pelosi hails from CA.

and the list goes on.

  • Can you clarify your second #1? Is that Presidential elections that you mean 'voted for'? Or Senate? Or House?
    – Keen
    Jan 22, 2013 at 15:12
  • 10
    Take into account that the Democrats and the Republicans basically switched places on many issues since the Nixon era. Lincoln was a Republican president, yet now he wouldn't win a Republican primary even in San Francisco.
    – user1413
    Jan 25, 2013 at 0:10
  • Los Angeles and San Fransico Mar 10, 2013 at 9:59

4 Answers 4


Many people point to the overwhelming Republican support for (from the Republican Governor Pete Wilson on down), and passage of, Proposition 187 in 1994 as the catalyst that doomed the Republican party for a generation or more in statewide elections in California. The Proposition was an illegal immigration based ballot initiative that was similar in many ways to the recent controversial Senate Bill 1070 that passed in Arizona. It was intended to put in place a screening system to ensure that state services (education, healthcare, etc.) were not being used by those in the state illegally.

The measure was rejected by over 60% of Democrats in the state while Republicans and Independents supported it to a tune of 78% and 62% respectively. This dichotomy tied the Republican fates to the popularity of the bill after it was enacted. As protests mounted, and subsequent campaigns were run as a referendum on Proposition 187 (the sitting governor was replaced by Gray Davis, a Democrat, who ran a campaign explicitly against Proposition 187), the Republican brand in the state suffered as well. Coupled with significant demographic shifts that sees 38% of the state's population now identifying as Hispanic, the party simply could not overcome the rising tide of the Democrats. Indeed, since the passage of Proposition 187 Arnold Schwarzenegger is the only Republican to win a statewide election.

  • It's probably worth noting that Arnold Schwarzenegger replaced Gray Davis in a recall election, just one year after Gray Davis was re-elected.
    – user285
    Sep 12, 2017 at 15:30
  • 3
    The Republicans never had control of the legislature 1992-1994 and in fact won the Assembly in 1996 after that law. politics.stackexchange.com/a/38422/2430
    – Chloe
    Jan 31, 2019 at 22:22

This article from fivethirtyeight analyses California's shift from Republican to Democratic in depth. Some interesting passages:

Southern California was Republican-leaning, largely because the defense industry was a major economic engine [...] In the early 1990s, defense spending began to fall, and numerous military bases in California were closed. This helped spark an out-migration of mostly white, affluent and Republican-leaning residents, including many former defense-industry workers.

[...] The influx into California of Hispanics and Asians had an even larger effect. Between 1980 and 2000, California’s Hispanic and Asian communities each doubled as a share of the state’s population.

[...]Its main economic drivers were changing. Although agriculture remains a major industry, defense faded and Hollywood and Silicon Valley grew. California saw an influx of highly educated young professionals.


California is a coastal state that is urbanized compared to even other coastal states. It has more than its share of trade relationships, both domestic and international, and a diversity of people as a result. In this regard, it is much like the liberal Northeastern states in New England, and the "MidAtlantic" region. As such, its "natural" tendency would be Democratic.

The "puzzling" part is why California was Republican, at least at the level of Presidential politics for most of the period between 1952 and 1988. The answer appears to be the role of "native son" candidates on the Republican ticket. Californian Richard M. Nixon was the Vice-Presidential candidate (for Eisenhower) in 1952 and 1956, then the Presidential candidate in 1960, 1968, and 1972, with California voting Republican in those three years, but not in 1964. Then Californian Ronald Reagan led the Republican ticket in 1980 and 1984. He was also the "invisble man" for the Republicans in 1988, and IMHO, 1976. Beginning in 1992, no Californian came anywhere close to the Republican ticket, nor did the state vote Republican in Presidential elections since then.

  • 1
    Alaska, Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, South/North Carolina are coastal states, and they are not majority Democrat. Texas and Florida are diverse. I don't believe your theory holds. I would agree that trading cities have a natural tendency to be liberal, but I believe California is strictly Democrat for another reason.
    – Chloe
    May 31, 2019 at 20:14
  • @Chloe: I wrote that California "is urbanized compared to even other coastal states." Specifically the ones that you mentioned. It's the liberal northeastern states that are comparably urbanized.
    – Tom Au
    Mar 9, 2020 at 17:00
  • No, California has very rural areas too, like the farming counties, and Northern California which is mountainous and forested. Northern California is as rural as eastern Washington and Oregon. I believe it is Democrat for another reason. Show me the data and I'll be willing to change my mind.
    – Chloe
    Apr 17, 2020 at 3:05
  • 2
    @Chloe: As of the 2010 census, California was 95% "urbanized" versus 80.7% for the USA as a whole. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urbanization_in_the_United_States California's 95.0% rate is the highest among U.S. states, even higher than that of New York, Massachusetts, or even New Jersey. Alaska, Georgia,North and South Carolina are all below the national average. Only Florida comes "close" to California, with 91.3%.
    – Tom Au
    Apr 17, 2020 at 4:27

A big reason for Democratic stronghold in California is due to the top two candidates open primary act - proposition 14.

A new open primary law took effect in 2012. The “Top Two Candidates Open Primary Act” requires that all candidates for a voter-nominated office be listed on the same ballot. This means that a voter could cast his/her vote for any candidate, regardless of what party preference the voter indicated on his/her voter registration form. Only the two candidates receiving the most votes – regardless of party preference – would then go to the General Election ballot, regardless of vote totals.


The top two vote-getters, regardless of their partisan affiliations, advance to the general election. Consequently, it is possible for two candidates belonging to the same political party to win in a top-two primary and face off in the general election. California followed suit in 2010.

So that means Republicans and Democrats could run in the primary, but if two Democrats get the most votes, then only Democrats will be in the general election. This is a positive feedback loop to a single party to maintain power. Even if a candidate is bad, an opponent would still run as the major popular party but with different policies.

Here is a history of party control in California.

california government party control 1992-2019


  • Why is your belief relevant? Do you have some kind of expertise or experience that you want to back up your answer with? Jan 31, 2019 at 5:31
  • If Texas was a top-two open primary state, and you were going to run for office, and you knew that 60% of Texas was Republican, then you would run as a Republican to get a better chance of winning, regardless of your policies.
    – Chloe
    Jul 26, 2020 at 22:09
  • I don't follow. What's the connection between the open primary and Democratic dominance? Jul 30, 2020 at 2:03
  • @Accumulation There is no connection. It is a positive feedback loop so whichever party currently has dominance when the policy takes effect maintains dominance. It is like moving a magnet closer to a group of magnets. It doesn't matter if it's a N or S pole, because it will get easier & easier to move towards another similar pole, and hard & harder to move towards a different pole.
    – Chloe
    Aug 3, 2020 at 19:07

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