By Darry Sragow and Marva Diaz | Special for CalMatters
In another year when conventional thinking has taken a beating, voters in the 2020 election upended political norms and conventions.
Many political professionals who expected a Blue Wave were surprised — no, shocked — because if there’s one cardinal rule in California politics, it’s that large turnout elections benefit Democrats.
Yet, despite Joe Biden beating President Donald Trump by 5.1 million votes in a record turnout year in California, Republicans managed to flip three Congressional seats won two years ago by Democrats, and hold a fourth they had won in a special election earlier this year when Katie Hill quit.
Even more stunning, all four of the races were razor-thin on Election Day. Most observers waited for the traditional Democratic surge of late ballots that would rescue the incumbent Democrats.
That surge never came and even more surprising, the Republicans added to their vote totals in after-election vote counting. That collective thud you heard was the dropping jaws of political consultants all around the state.
Why and how this happened is a subject of speculation and conflicting theories. Let’s try to unravel this Gordian knot.
President Donald Trump Lost ‘Bigly’
Love him or not, give Trump this: He may be the greatest get-out-the-vote generator in history. Unfortunately for Republicans, he turned out people who voted against him in record numbers as well as those who voted for him. Clearly, California voters wanted to be on record one way or the other about Trump.
No question, Trump turned out his base and then some. More than 5.3 million Republicans voted in California, which is the second highest in history behind the 2008 election when 5.4 million Republicans cast ballots.
Trump reduced his losing margin in the state from 30% (61-31%) in 2016 to 29% (63-34%) this year. That is two of the worst Republican presidential performances in California history. To refresh your memory, George H.W. Bush earned just 33% in 1992, because Ross Perot won 21%; before that, you must go back to Alf Landon in 1936 to find a Republican nominee who garnered proportionally less than Trump.
California was an electoral disaster for Trump, so it wasn’t his coattails that helped flip those Congressional seats.
California Republicans Voted Late
From the results, it appears that unlike in decades of previous elections, the late vote was mostly Republican. Historically, the late vote was always the Democrats’ strength as they unleashed get-out-the-vote crews into districts to drag low propensity voters to the polls.
Not this year. The pandemic prevented Democrats and their organized labor allies from going door-to-door although they did have phone bankers to motivate their voters.
In the past, the Republicans’ California strategy was to aggressively encourage their voters to vote early with mail-in ballots. In 2020, they engendered distrust of the U.S. Postal Service among their voters and urged them to cast ballots on Election Day. To their credit, they did a great job and consequently, the late ballots trended heavily Republican.
Furthermore, Trump lost all the districts won by the Republican congressional challengers. So how did David Valadao in the Central Valley, Mike Garcia in the district abandoned by Hill, and Young Kim and Michelle Park Steel in their Orange County-centered districts win?
Trump may deserve some credit for turning out the base. But clearly the credit must go to those four candidates and their campaigns.
Republicans Reached Out to Independents
Kim and Steel reached out to independents and Democrats, as well as voters in their conservative base. They did Korean-, Chinese- and Vietnamese-language outreach through mailers, emails and text messages.
And while they tied their Democratic opponents to Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and her “socialist” agenda, Kim and Steel also focused on bread-and-butter issues like cutting taxes and keeping small businesses open during the coronavirus pandemic.
Garcia’s victory north of Los Angeles is symbolic for another reason. It ensured that Pelosi and the Democrats failed to oust a single House GOP incumbent in a cycle when they had hoped to grow their majority by between five and 20 seats.
Another hypothesis that may be the key to this election and future campaigns as well involves no party preference voters. More than 6.5 million NPP voters cast ballots in 2020. That’s 1.2 million more than Republicans — by far the most in history.
The greatest gain in California registered voters has been in the no party preference category. Under California’s new motor voter law, most new voters have been added by the Department of Motor Vehicles. DMV clerks don’t ask political preference and simply check the NPP box.
So, what do we know about these new NPP voters? Very little. In the past, the assumptions were that those who moved to no party preference were voters who rejected the hyper partisanship of their party and genuinely wanted to be independent.
An old rule of thumb that the NPP voters along most of the coast were more liberal and pro-environment while the Orange County decline to state voters rejected the ultra-conservatives but still were right of center.
We need to throw out those old stereotypes based on the 2020 election. The NPP voters of today — millions added to the rolls by the DMV — voted against Trump, but we could reach the conclusion that either they are more moderate or wanted to balance out a Democrat in the White House by voting for Republicans in Congress.
It had to be a conscious effort by voters because the same voters who elected Republican Steel ousted Republican State Sen. John Moorlach and replaced him with Democrat Dave Min. While Republican Kim won, her voters elected Democrat Josh Newman to the state Senate, defeating incumbent Republican Ling Ling Chang.
What Will 2022 Bring?
Despite the losses, California Democrats aren’t in panic mode. While Trump boosted turnout among Republicans, including in Orange County, he won’t be on the ballot in 2022. Biden beat Trump in the state by nearly 30 percentage points, and Democrats still hold 42 of California’s 53 congressional seats. Additionally, Democrats added to their supermajority in the state Senate.
Future campaigners need to dive deeper into the new breed of motor voters. Their numbers will grow exponentially over the coming years. In the past NPP voters were an afterthought for most campaigns. That strategy clearly doesn’t work anymore. No party preference voters will be the key to future victories or defeats.
It’s hard to predict what will happen in 2022 as we continue to navigate through our pandemic world, not to mention redistricting. The fate of the current crop of elected officials lies in the hands of California’s Independent Redistricting Commission, which will redraw legislative and congressional districts before the 2022 election based on new Census numbers.
Adding to the 2022 unpredictability, the Trump administration is arguing its case before the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to exclude undocumented immigrants from the Census, meaning California could lose as many as three congressional seats.
So buckle up and hold on as we ride this political roller coaster all the way to the 2022 elections.
Darry Sragow is the publisher of California Target Book, a non-partisan toolbox for California political professionals. Marva Diaz is the editor of the Target Book. They wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.