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New Studies Map and Measure California’s Politics

Mar5

Two fascinating and useful studies of California’s political landscape have been published in recent days, one mapping the geographic variations of attitudes and the other creating and applying a scientific measure of communities’ ideologies.

“California’s Political Geography” by Eric McGhee and Daniel Krimm of the Public Policy Institute of California, matches California counties by residents’ party identification, 2008 presidential vote and by responses to two social and two fiscal survey questions with what McGhee calls “clear liberal or conservative dimensions.”

“The California Political Precinct Index” by David Latterman at the University of San Francisco, is a powerful tool for assessing counties and electoral districts according to actual precinct votes on nine ballot measures that are “easily interpretable” as liberal or conservative.

Using several years of PPIC polling data — on abortion rights, gay marriage, the size of government and the use of spending cuts to address the state budget deficit – McGhee and Krimm construct five opinion-based groupings of Californians:

– Loyal Liberal: Very liberal on both social and fiscal issues (18% of the state’s population)
– Moderate Liberal: Moderately liberal on both social and fiscal issues (24%);
– Conservative Liberal: Conservative on social issues and moderately liberal on fiscal issues (25%);
– Moderate Conservative: Moderately liberal on social issues and conservative on fiscal issues (17%);
– Committed Conservative: Conservative on both social and fiscal issues (15%).

When the results are mapped, the authors conclude, “California has indeed become more Democratic, but its liberal reputation is deserved only in the Bay Area and environs. In the rest of the state, even in Los Angeles County, California is more conservative and less consistently defined by geography than conventional wisdom would sometimes suggest.”

Moreover, McGhee and Krimm say, “Public opinion data show the average Californian falling in the middle and leaning slightly conservative.” But their data – from the rising Democratic share of the two-party presidential vote to the widespread Democratic tilt of self-identified “independent” voters – suggest that because of the uneven distribution of population in California, the state actually is the Left Coast.

Those who call themselves Republicans are generally really conservative, while those who call themselves Democrats are more ideologically diverse, especially in places like eastern San Bernardino, Riverside and Imperial counties. But what kills the GOP is that in almost every part of the state, “independents” lean at least slightly toward the Democrats.

“In sum, independents are more likely to reinforce the state’s political status quo than to disturb it, although they also make the state more Democratic on election day than voter registration numbers might suggest,” McGhee and Krimm write, in what might have been titled “The Myth of the Purple State.”

Nothing more graphically demonstrates the effect of this tendency than the cool map they produced of the two-party presidential vote in 2008, distorting the state’s physical geography by sizing geographic groupings according to their relative share of the state’s population.

Census tract ideology: Latterman, associate director of the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good (whew!), modeled his California Political Precinct Index (CPPI) on the San Francisco Progressive Voter Index (SFPVI) created in 2002 by SF State’s Rich DeLeon.

After assembling US Census blocks into standardized precincts, using the November 2008 precinct map, Latterman used precinct-level results on nine ballot measures, to assign scores from 0 (most conservative) to 100 (most liberal) to every one of California’s 20,358 precincts.

“The CPPI, though reaffirming what we understand to be standard California political trends, provides a very subtle view of the California body politic,” Latterman writes.  “As is consistent with California’s recent political narrative, much of the coast is liberal, while inland precincts are generally more conservative; however, with precinct-level resolution the picture becomes more complicated. Large swaths of less-populated areas are indeed conservative, but areas of settlement are more liberal. For instance, along Route 99 in the Central valley, there is a string of ‘blue’ dots representing more liberal towns than the open farmland expanses around them.”

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When looking at all the CPPI values for California counties, they are normally distributed in a bell curve but the mean score is 56.3 – “a little to the left of what could be called the ideological center of the state,” Latterman says.

Interestingly, the most centrist score (49.4) is assigned to rural Inyo County, population 18,546, followed by Del Norte (49.2), Orange (48.9) and San Bernardino (51.4) . The single most conservative county is Modoc, with a CPPI of 33.1 and the most liberal is San Francisco at 71.8.

Santa Barbara County, at 56.8, scores closest to the middle of the range for all the counties but like Kern County (42.7), it also shows tremendous variation from one precinct to the next, with scores ranging from 20.8 to 87.9. In Kern County, the range of precinct scores was from 0 (i.e. 100% conservative) to 75.2.

At the other extreme are places like Colusa County (36.0), where precincts are all conservative, ranging only from 30 to 47.3.

Pols to match my precincts: Although the CPPI is built on results from ballot measures and not candidates – where personality and other factors can have big effects – the CPPI correlates almost perfectly with the party affiliation of office holders. So one of the uses of the CPPI will likely be a better understanding of whether a candidate’s ideological characteristics are a good match for his or her district – that is, whether he or she is well matched to the sentiments of the district he or she hopes to represent.

Latterman found that “the more Latinos in a precinct, the more liberal it is likely to be” and the less deviation there is in voting behavior. He also found that Central Valley Latinos are generally more conservative than coastal and urban Latinos.

And using same-sex marriage and legalization of marijuana as measures, he found that “an otherwise liberal voting faction (higher CPPI values) voted more conservatively on these measures, relative to what would have been expected given their CPPI values.” In other words, on issues like these and parental notification for abortion, Latino precincts  “vote somewhat more conservatively” than their counterparts with similar CPPI scores.

Not too much of this is terribly surprising to people who have been in and around California politics. What is new is that Latterman’s work allows some scientific measurement of what has long been a function of polling, intuition and experience.


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There is one comment for this post

  1. avatar tonyseton says:

    “Those who call themselves Republicans are generally really conservative” The distinction you make is very, very important and very, very few in the media seem to get it. It’s why I produced the “Elephants Resign” video which can be seen on YouTube at
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVEXWLfw0bY

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