Could Barack Obama Lose California in 2012?

Local political analysts weigh in on the President’s standing with voters in the Golden State

Photograph by Forest Casey

Dr. Tony Quinn
Co-editor of the California Target Book 

The answer is yes, Obama could lose this state. However, if he did, it would be part of a national landslide. You have national landslides once in a while—Obama sort of had one in 2008—but otherwise you have to go back to Ronald Regan against Jimmy Carter, and he carried all but about five or six states. Now California is probably the fourth or fifth most loyally Democratic state, so if you got down to a situation where the Democrats were losing every state but Vermont and Rhode Island and a couple of states like that, California would probably get swept up in it.

Landslides occur when the economy is bad, and voters tend to blame the party that is in office. That’s the danger that Obama is facing now. The danger to his reelection is the 9 percent unemployment—and it’s 12 percent here. So that sets up the kind of dynamic that could lead to a national landslide. If the economy was really good, like it was when President Bill Clinton ran for reelection or even like it was in 2000, the likelihood of a landslide would be virtually impossible, but in an economy as bad as this it could happen.

I think it’s most likely that Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee. He’s the only one who’s out there now who seems to be a credible candidate. I think the rest of them have so many flaws that they really can’t be taken seriously. If for some reason Romney were to collapse, the Republican race could be thrown into complete chaos, and I don’t think they would turn to Rick Perry or anyone running now because they seem so badly wounded. They might turn to somebody we never ever heard of. A lot of things could happen. But if you assume that Mitt Romney is the nominee, then you have to look at how he would run in California, and he would probably be a reasonably strong Republican candidate here, better than McCain or George W. Bush, but that doesn’t mean that he would carry the state absent a landslide.

My guess is that this will remain a safe state for Obama and that California will be viewed as sort of off the radar and won’t be seriously contested. It’s very expensive to contest California. For $20 million you can win North Carolina or Indiana, which are close states, and get all those electoral votes. Twenty million dollars doesn’t get you very far in a presidential race here.

California has been one of Obama’s very best sources of campaign funds. All the candidates come here to raise money, but virtually no one—from either party—has come here in the past 25 years or so to seriously campaign. That’s very frustrating to a lot of people in California because this state gets forgotten. But Obama is doing what Bill Clinton did before him and what George W. Bush did before him and going back for years, and that is coming to California simply to raise money. He probably doesn’t need to campaign here since the only way Obama could lose the state—which I think he could—is for there to be a big national landslide.

This election is particularly interesting because you have a president running for reelection with very high unemployment and a whole lot of dissatisfaction across the country, and if you take a look at Europe, which is having the same problems we are having, you see in the last year or so quite a few governments being voted out of office. Usually a president starts the reelection process in reasonably good shape with the likelihood that he will be reelected—generally we give our presidents two terms—but in this case, because of the unhappiness and the economic condition, we do have a much more interesting race. In many ways Obama is starting out weaker than he did in 2008. 

Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Political analyst and author, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge

The short answer to “Can Obama lose California?” is no. It’s a lockdown Democratic state. Now here’s the longer answer as to why the question is even posed: It’s true that the Democrats have a crushing numerical advantage over the GOP in terms of vote numbers and percentages here. The state’s two major cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco, are rock solid Democratic, labor, environmental, and minority voter friendly. San Diego, another major city, is increasingly environmental and multi-ethnic friendly. No GOP presidential candidate has won California since George H.W. Bush did in 1988.
However, there are short- and long-term perils for Obama in 2012 and for the Democrats beyond that election. A centrist-friendly GOP presidential candidate—that is, Mitt Romney—can appeal to independents and conservative Democrats. A continued souring economy, a lackluster turnout by Latino voters, and an equally lackluster get-out-the-vote effort by Democrats in the state can appreciably narrow the vote margin that Obama will get.  
A concerted effort by the GOP to get a coherent centrist, immigration-friendly line, and an equally concerted effort on their part to appeal to Latino voters on the issues of patriotism, family values, small-business support, and even religious values, and to cultivate some young Latino and even black potential officeholders and put money behind their campaigns is a future possibility. If the GOP chooses to go that route, it could pay some dividends. The point is, for the GOP to be competitive again in this state it has to transform itself from a narrowly rigid, ultra-conservative white guys party into a party that preaches and practices diversity. If it can pull off this political magic hat trick, it can be a force again in California. This won’t happen in 2012. But the possibilities are there for the future for the GOP. The ball could then be in the GOP’s court, but for now it will stay in Obama’s and the Democrats’ court.


Darry Sragow
Partner, SNR Denton and former chief campaign strategist for the Democrats in the California State Assembly 

In a traditional two-way race between a Democrat and a Republican it is virtually impossible for the president to lose California. He is still more popular here than he is in many other places. He certainly has a reservoir of personal goodwill to draw on and is facing a Republican Party that is an endangered species in California. Republicans continue to constitute a smaller and smaller part of the California electorate. Their registration is down to about 31 percent, and the Republican Party in California is viewed pretty widely as hostile to people of color—Latinos and every Asian American group but one, Vietnamese Americans, who tend to be conservative. Obviously this is now a minority white state, so the trend is inevitable.

The interesting thing is that there is going to be a third choice on the ballot. About a month ago I got significantly involved with an organization called Americans Elect. It’s a nonpartisan, nonideological group that is creating access to the ballot in all 50 states for someone who is going to be nominated in an online convention next June, and it’s a pretty dramatic effort to increase the competition in politics. Nobody has any idea who the nominee will be. The legal barriers to someone new coming in are very high, so this organization is spending the money that a candidate would need on lawyers and gathering signatures to make sure that there will be somebody nominated in an online convention running for president. With those circumstances it is very unclear what will happen.

From what I can tell, the voters in California who seem to be attracted to the thought of having a new third choice are very much in the center, and that means there are a lot of Republicans who seem, at least based on polling, to be interested in this. In California one of the reasons the Republican Party is losing market share is not only the issue of how they treat people who are not white, but also because of how conservative it has become.

You could certainly make the argument that if that third candidate is a centrist and is popular and runs a good campaign, it could affect the outcome in California. That’s the unknown factor.

Jobs is the number one issue, and the number two issue, and the number three issue. We have at the moment the second-highest unemployment rate in the country. Roughly one out of eight Californians who claims to be in the workforce doesn’t have a job. So the economy and jobs is absolutely critical. The disconnect that makes it difficult for the Republicans to take advantage of the situation is twofold: First of all, there isn’t much evidence that the Republican Party offers a better solution to the problem. Based on polling, people are clearly not satisfied with the job the administration is doing, but voters haven’t said Republicans have the magic answer. Secondly, the Republican Party in California–this is not true in all states—is just not considered to be a viable option by a lot of voters because they are so conservative on social policy. The Republicans in California are out of touch with the libertarian ethos of the state. We always get described as crazy liberals by our relatives somewhere back East, but we’re not. We’re Liberatarian. The Republican Party in California has been captured by people who like the idea of regulating social and personal behavior. There’s no question that the economic problems facing the state are very serious, but on issues relating to our personal lives and to the environment, which is very important here, Californians think the Republicans are just totally out of step.

Another thing that hurts the Republicans in California is, they have become obstructionists. They are the ones who refused to give their votes to get a budget and threw the state into a crisis. Voters know that the Republicans are wiling to bring the state government to a standstill over something that frankly the voters don’t understand. That’s very damaging to their party.

All of that, to go back to the original question, makes it virtually certain that President Obama will win California in 2012 irrespective of whatever else is going on. It’s not because we are zombie voters whose brains have been eaten by the Democrats. It’s because the Republicans have totally forfeited the political opportunity that awaits them if they make some decisions differently.

ALSO: Read Bad News, Bear  Anne Taylor Fleming’s December column on the president’s current standing