Ross Douthat’s Voters in Southern California? An Outline for a Voter Research Study
I’m a fan and frequent reader of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, an idiosyncratic thinker whose temperament could loosely be described as “socially conservative and fiscally liberal.” I think it would be appropriate to describe those of this political temperament as “Douthatites” or “Douthatians” or something similar, as there are no major politicians in America today we can use for name.
Now, according to a recent study by New America’s Lee Drutman, it would appear that over a quarter (28.9%) of Americans identify as socially conservative and fiscally liberal. These voters don’t have an established voice in American politics in the form of a political party, and thus the Republicans and Democrats have been jockeying over them for the last several decades (Bill Clinton’s Third Way, George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism, etc.) President Trump clearly caught this demographic in 2016, but it remains to be seen whether he can hold together his voters, let alone the Presidency, amidst everything happening nowadays.
The presence of these voters in such numbers in America came as no surprise to me. But I was absolutely shocked when, while reading a 2012 report by the Public Policy Institute of California, I learned that in liberal California fully a quarter of registered voters identify as socially conservative and fiscally liberal, as well. A map of the Golden State reveals these voters to be majority groups in a few parts of the state, concentrated in the Central Valley and the industrial ring around Los Angeles.
This gave me some pause and made me start thinking. The California GOP- which, I believe, controls most of the legislative seats in the Central Valley- is certainly socially conservative, but not in ways that the heavily Latino populations of LA’s industrial ring and the Central Valley would necessarily agree with. The California Democratic Party- which, I believe, controls most of the legislative seats in the LA suburbs- is certainly fiscally liberal, but almost to a lunatic degree, and it isn’t a stretch to argue that it serves its Bay Area elite constituents better than its postindustrial working-class constituents.
Moreover, there is no major faction in either state party that really serves this constituency (though it would appear that the elected Democrats and Republicans in either of these districts make efforts and motions towards serving it.) The California Democrats, as the recent delegate-selection process revealed, are split between powerful Bay Area plutocrats like Kamala Harris and Gavin Newsom, and rising Bernie Sanders-style insurgents across the state, most of whom are in their 20s and 30s. The California GOP has an old-guard equivalent of the Bay Area plutocrats that resides in the wealthier suburbs of the Bay Area, San Diego, Orange County, and LA, but this declining elite is generally socially liberal and fiscally conservative. The vast majority of Republican electeds in California are conservative populists who cater more to Tea Partiers than Reagan Library trustees. In this polarized and radicalizing environment so typical of Golden State politics, there really is no “vital center” to serve the ideologically uncomfortable populations of the Inland Empire and Central Valley, by my measure.
I’m a young Republican on my way to Washington D.C. in December, but I do plan to return to Southern California eventually. Perhaps I suffer from a form of masochism, but one of my long-term goals is to work in Republican politics out on the West Coast, and to help restore one of the formerly most formidable state Republican parties in the country to its former glory, in the interests of broader national party reform. Get a GOP functional again in Southern California, and you’ve created a model of politics with implications for half the states and counties in the country. And that has implications nationally, as well. This isn’t to say that Los Angeles is quite the city at the center of the world; but it is to say that, indirectly at least, Southern California is the tail wagging the American dog, and work here is a tad bit more important in an exemplary sense than work in other places I might choose to be.
If that means legislative work, policy work, campaign work, or something else, I hope to get my hands dirty doing it after I’ve spent a few years traveling around and working in D.C. I don’t know if I plan to run for elected office as part of that plan or not, but if I do I will certainly be setting roots down somewhere in Southern California’s suburban areas.
Which brings us back to the socially conservative/fiscally liberal voters. As anyone who follows this blog knows, I consider myself a Hamiltonian in the style of Michael Lind and Ross Douthat, and in my less prudent moments, an old-line Richard Nixon Republican. (Nixon was, incidentally, a Southern Californian as well.) I can’t be a Democrat for a lot of reasons, but I’m a bad Republican for just as many. Regardless, I remain a Republican out of loyalty to the organization and a pragmatic realization that the ticket to play the game of politics is membership in a team. The problem is that the Republican Party in California is not particularly amenable to the ideas and identity I espouse, for the most part.
That problem can be overcome- I’m slowly realizing that it’s better to work for people you disagree with who can help you get someplace than to insist on purity of any sort, if you want to make a difference. And in any case, I agree with the California GOP on enough issues- particularly the fact that California needs a competitive opposition party to check the excesses and ambitions of the ascendant and still-rising Democrats- that I happily still affiliate with them for all practical purposes.
So- I’m considering outlining an extended voter research project on voting patterns and political trends in the “LA Industrial Ring” communities listed by the PPIC report, to see if there is any prospect there for a moderate Republican revival and determine what policy and political contours local Republicans, myself included, would need to emphasize to find success. A similar project in the Central Valley would probably be easier given that Republicans already control many of those seats, but as my hope is to live and work in Southern California, it would make more sense to start focused down here.
The regions listed by the report include Long Beach, Central Los Angeles, the “East Los Angeles Suburbs,” and “West San Bernardino.” After setting up a list of the LA neighborhood districts, incorporated cities, counties, and other political units comprising this region that stretches from the Pacific to the San Gabriels and San Bernardinos, I would begin studying the demographics, economics, and politics of this vast area and perhaps some of the surrounding and demographically similar communities like North Orange County, Riverside County, and the San Fernando Valley.
Important factors to study would include ethnic and religious distribution; the shape the “socially conservative” values take would depend largely on that, alongside the class structure. Population distribution, too, would be critical, particularly in the urban vs. suburban sense. I would look at the major industries and employers, to get an impression of the economic life of the area, as well as the income distribution, as a way to understand the class dynamics and levels of inequality present.
Voter registration would be perhaps less important for my purposes here, but no less important for the eventual political strategy to take shape. And on that note, it would be important to access public domain data on voting patterns over the last decade or so, including information on all levels of elected officials across the board. The political structure- which parties and donors dominate, including donors from outside the boundaries- would be crucial, as well.
Not being from this area (unless USC falls in the “Central LA” region, which I’m not sure about) I don’t really have a good idea about any of these factors. So I’d have to do my homework and embark on an extensive search for this information- the quantitative stuff will be easy enough to come by using reports by the Public Policy Institute of California, various university research centers, and my own employer, the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. It would also probably be important to get anecdotal information as well, through interviews with residents of the area who follow this kind of thing- journalists at various local newspapers, the staff of local legislative officials, perhaps local municipal elected officials themselves, and various community leaders. I’d of course make a point of visiting the townhalls of local legislators and city hall meetings, and other political events- Machiavelli, in his exile, spent time amidst the people of Northern Italy, to “chat with passerby, ask news of their regions, learn about various matters, observe mankind: the variety of its tastes, the diversity of its fancies…” Such “democratic” methods of study would separate this project from the heavily quantitative data-gathering exercises of more mainstream voter research. There’s an art to politics that sometimes can only be gleaned from the observation of mankind.
Additionally- the report lists these voters as “socially conservative and fiscally liberal,” but does not go into detail as to how this appellation was derived. I would plan to contact the authors of the report, Daniel Krimm and Eric McGhee, to get a better understanding of their methodology questions and surveys, their parameters, the regions they studied, and other basic information. Some questions- what issues were used in the polling? Are social conservatives and fiscal liberals the same people in these areas, or are they different groups of voters in the same area who dominate different domains? These things matter.
A review of the critical issues in the region would be important, too. What do voters there get fired up over- the gas tax, President Trump’s statements, immigration flows or family reunification, something else? And how important are distinct local factors like the Spanish language and heavy immigrant populations? If most Inland Empire voters routinely vote for Democrats, what are the characteristics of the local Democratic Party that controls much of the local power structure? What is the Democrats’ relationship to the local elites and voters, and how do these elites and voters view the Democratic Party and its representatives serving them? What are these voters’ and their elites’ opinions and perspectives on Republicans, nationally and at the local level?
From all this, and probably more, I would try to cobble together a general portrait of this vast, diverse area, and speculate on some political strategies, policy agendas, and demographic qualities of candidates that might be useful in establishing Republican competitiveness in the region. I would also, for awesomeness’s sake, get a few large laminated maps of Southern California to overlay such things as voting districts, population distributions, and issue geographies.
This would carry big implications, of course. Republican electoral victories in this part of California, with its apparent ideological makeup, would result in the elevation to power of unconventional Republican policymakers, who could influence the direction of the state party in two primary ways- first, by appointing similarly moderate delegates to the state party conventions where policy platforms and major decisions are decided upon; and second, by the force of multiple small bully pulpits to argue new directions from. The establishment of a socially traditionalist, fiscally pragmatic “Mod Squad Caucus” in the California GOP of similar total size to the Democrats’ Mod Squad Caucus, but greater relative power in the CAGOP, would be a support base for future California GOP statewide candidates, who could depend on the more moderate Inland Empire Republicans rather than on the rural and suburban doctrinaire populist Republicans who demand ideological conformity.
And if enough Inland Empire moderate Republicans could influence the direction of the state party, a more responsible GOP on the West Coast could be a major player in the efforts to redesign the makeup of the national GOP in the aftermath of Trump’s scandals and the bankruptcy of movement conservatism. As I noted before- Los Angeles and its suburban rings might not be the city at the center of the world, but for California Republicans, it ought to carry a weight not unlike that as we orient our efforts to compete and serve.
There are many potential problems with my analysis. It may be that there are more Republican electeds in the area I described than I thought, and this “comeback” strategic document would therefore be unnecessary. It might be that the definitions Krimm and McGhee assigned to these voters are out of date and not truly indicative of anything useful. There might be other things I’m overlooking.
But for now, I’m going to keep this plan in the back of my pocket for occasional reflection and to give myself something to do in a few years upon my return to Southern California. We’re living in interesting times, nationally and at the state level, and if this kind of study can be useful to literally anybody trying to manage the disruption, it’ll be worth it to do it.
 Yeah, some would argue President Donald Trump fits the description. I’ll shoot that argument down some other time. It’s partly true and partly false.