To those of us who have reached a certain age, Orange County, California, always meant conservative politics in the way that Idaho meant potatoes or Hollywood meant movies. I tried to explain the symbolic importance of this large suburban jurisdiction last year:
Ronald Reagan once said of Orange County (a 3 million-person suburb south and east of Los Angeles) that it was where “all the good Republicans go to die.” It’s where Richard Nixon was born and where his presidential library stands today. In the 1960s, it was a hotbed of John Birch Society activity (backed by Orange County’s own Walter Knott of Knott’s Berry Farm fame). In the 1970s, Orange County businessman Howard Jarvis was the chief proponent of Proposition 13, the property-tax limitation scheme that still makes California’s fiscal management insanely difficult. In the 1990s, the county was the birthplace of the immigrant-bashing Proposition 187, aimed at cutting off access to publicly funded programs for undocumented immigrants.
You get the drift. I might add that Orange County was one of just two California counties carried by Barry Goldwater in his disastrous 1964 general-election campaign. In 1984, it gave Ronald Reagan 75 percent of its votes. It went Republican in 19 consecutive presidential elections from 1940 through 2012. Then it was finally carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016, and then Democrats won all seven U.S. House seats located fully or partially in the county, flipping four that had been represented by Republicans, in a sweep that exemplified and exceeded the Donkey Party’s national midterm gains. And now, the capstone of this transformation, as the Los Angeles Times reports:
Orange County, long a Republican stronghold, has officially turned blue.
The county that nurtured Ronald Reagan’s conservatism and is the resting place of Richard Nixon is now home to 547,458 registered Democrats, compared with 547,369 Republicans, according to statistics released early Wednesday morning by the county Registrar of Voters.
Yes, 27 percent of the county’s voters express no party preference, reflecting a long-term trend in California and nationally. But elections trends don’t lie, and many right-wing and partisan Republican leaders from Orange (and some cultural icons like actor John Wayne, for whom the local airport is named) are probably rolling in their graves.
Clearly, demographics have driven the change. Back in the day, Orange County was home to vast numbers of white Midwestern transplants who came to work in defense-industry plants; they absorbed the area’s distinctive mix of right-wing politics and conservative religion along with the abundant sunshine. Now the O.C. is a majority-minority county and closer in its politics to the majority-minority Golden State, as the New York Times explained late last year:
To appreciate the vast cultural and political upheaval across Orange County over the last 40 years, look no further than Bolsa Avenue. The auto body shop, the tax preparer, a church, a food market, countless restaurants — all are marked by signs written in Vietnamese.
Or head seven miles west to Santa Ana, where Vietnamese makes way for Spanish along Calle Cuatro, a bustling enclave of stores and sidewalk stands serving an overwhelming Latino clientele …
The county’s immigrant population grew five times as fast as the general population between 1980 and 2000, and while the pace of immigration has slowed, the Latino and Asian populations continue to increase, driven by the children of immigrant families born in the United States.
At the same time, the alienation of college-educated white suburbanites with a Republican Party led by Donald J. Trump has had a compounding effect. The percentage of Orange County residents with college degrees has roughly doubled since 1980.
Republicans continue to hold many local offices in Orange County (including four of five members of the County Board of Supervisors) thanks to superior performance in low-turnout local elections. But it’s not the same, and the days of conservative hegemony are gone for good. If Trump carries the county in 2020, it will be a surprise.