California's Political Purple Reign

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California's real political colors, says a new report (Graphic: PPIC)

For years, we've talked about how the national color coded shorthand for California politics is overly simplistic. Yes, the state may be "blue" in total votes cast in some races -- presidential, most notably -- but the real color palette of California is far more complicated.

Which is where a new academic study comes in, one that shows just how politically complicated we Californians really are.

The report from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California concludes, both in data and in vivid color, that the state is much more in the political middle... and even leans more conservative... than many people assume.

The report is based on a new analysis of data compiled from PPIC's many statewide polls on the issues of the day. And that seems to be an important point, as the polling helps any kind of real political analysis not get trapped in things like voter registration. Yes, Democrats far outnumber Republicans in California... but not all Democratic voters vote for Democratic candidates and causes, and nonpartisan/independent voters also don't always perform as expected. Sure, Dems won all of the constitutional offices in 2012 but you only have to look at the final vote count in the race for attorney general (where AG Kamala Harris squeaked by GOP candidate Steve Cooley) to know that voter registration doesn't tell us much about the political realities.

The PPIC report breaks California down into five distinct groups: loyal liberal, moderate liberal, conservative liberal, moderate conservative, and committed conservative. Clearly that list points out the more nuanced versions of "liberal," which no doubt explains the Democratic party's dominance.

Of those groups, PPIC argues the largest bloc of Californians (49%) are either moderate or conservative liberals. But looking at the other groups helps explain some of the other political fights in recent years. For example, the loyal and moderate liberal factions -- which is where the state's national reputation resides -- is only 42% of the electorate, whereas the majority skews has tendencies towards conservative opinions on fiscal or social issues, or both.

But it gets even more interesting than that. The 49% of the population that's moderately liberal (24%) or conservatively liberal (25%) is really where so many of the state's biggest fights are resolved. PPIC defines a moderate liberal as "moderately liberal on both social and fiscal issues" and a conservative liberal as "conservative on social issues and moderately liberal on fiscal issues." That may help explain the fights on everything from same sex marriage to the budget and taxes.

PPIC also finds that Republicans are very homogenous when it comes to their political ideology, whereas Democrats are much more complex:

Democrats (and independents who lean Democratic) are more ideologically diverse. In every part of the state, conservative Democrats make up at least 9 percent of people who identify with Democrats—and in all but three places, they make up at least 12 percent. Furthermore, the numbers of either "conservative" or "strongly conservative" Democrats are quite high in some areas: 40 percent in the eastern portion of San Bernardino County, 35 percent in Imperial County, and almost 30 percent in eastern Riverside County and much of the San Joaquin Valley.

The authors of the study point out that this kind of Democratic heterogeneity means there are opportunities for Republicans in California and self-styled moderates... opportunities, perhaps, that will be amplified under the two big electoral changes coming online in 2012: new political districts and the top-two primary system.

"Only the Bay Area," say the authors, "is home to extraordinarily large numbers of people who hold opinions associated with the Democratic Party."

Take a look, too, at PPIC's maps of the purple electorate on a whole host of issues -- from abortion rights to action on climate change -- and you'll see just how complex Californians really are when it comes to their politics.

3:14 pm Update: A couple of descriptive terms in the original posting have been changed, thanks to some clarification by PPIC's lead author on the study, Eric McGhee. McGhee points out that the study, based on previous PPIC polls, tries to extrapolate the preferences not just of voters... but also of the overall adult population (which are, as studies show, not the same group of folks). The conclusions are the same, but the ideological preferences are supposed to be about Californians overall, and not just those who cast a ballot.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • Ash Roughani

    Good overview, John.  We’re currently working on a more specific analysis of moderate voters to highlight their issue positions and the implications for a Moderate Party policy agenda.

  • Reilleyfam

    Unfortunately I like analysis of “likely voters” since they are actually who decides things in the end. Even with that reduced pool, CA is quite quirky, unpredictable, and diverse with a starting point of left of center.

  • Anonymous

    Right on target, John.

    It amazes me that, despite this,  the California Republican Party insists on driving its candidates further and further to the right…away from the people who clearly decide the elections in our state.

    The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the results to be different.

  • Me

     Just like the democratic voters who continue to vote democrat year after year, watching their state get more ridiculous and broke. The amazing thing is they try and blame the least powerful – the republicans when this state is unions/democrat owned and operated. Talk about the definition of insanity……

  • Anonymous

    The Democrats win because they understand that the majority of California voters are in the middle and reject the extremist politics of the Right (i.e., no new taxes ever, cut public services to the bone, etc.) or the Left (single payer health insurance, legalize marijuana). The Republicans are “least powerful” because of their own decisions. And they continue to ignore the FACTS about the voting patterns in this state, even though they continue to lose year after year. That’s the definition of insanity.

  • Anonymous

    Read this map carefully.  There is a lot of purple and red geographically, but there are more people in that little blue peninsula of San Francisco then in all of Modoc county.  A pie chart might give better information here.

  • Greg Diamond

    Now all you have to do is to adjust the size of the counties by their voting population and you’ll have something that could support your argument.  It will more likely rebut it, but it COULD support it, which puts you ahead of where you are now.

  • John Myers, KQED

    John: Click on the main PPIC report and scroll down to Figure 3. It’s a CA map that’s been distorted to represent relative population and political persuasion… and it makes your very same point: geographic size is misleading. –JM

  • Ash Roughani

    I’m making a video about how pointless it is to blame each other for our state’s problems.  If you guys would like to be in it, please shoot an email to ash(at)