Critical Realignment is Indeed Rare: Why the Common Wisdom about the “Earthquake” Effect of Prop 187 is Counter-Intuitive

Iris Hui and David O. Sears

V.O. Key (1955) proposes the concept of “critical election” where abrupt disruption in partisan alignments occurs. In a critical election, voters are “unusually deeply concerned”. Their electoral involvement is relatively high and the “decisive results of voting reveal a sharp alteration of the pre –existing cleavage within the electorate” (1955, p.4). In any introductory courses to American politics, we learn that critical elections seem to be rare in American history.

In 1994, Proposition 187 in California banned undocumented immigrants from accessing health care, education and a variety of other public services.  In 1996, Proposition 209 rejected state governmental affirmative action programs that used race or sex in selecting candidates for employment, contracts, or public education. In 1998, Proposition 227 proscribed a limited time period in which Limited English Proficiency students could be taught in a language other than English. Proposition 187 in particular is often described as a “tipping point” in both California and national Latino politics, leading to their partisan realignment, and marking a new era in which the Democratic Party dominates the state.

Bowler et al. (2006) described Proposition 187 as an “earthquake,” followed by the “aftershocks” of the other two propositions. They contend that “partisan change among Latinos accumulated across a series of contentious ballot propositions that targeted Latinos” (p. 146). The propositions led to a drastic increase of Latinos’ Democratic identification. And the Democratic gain came primarily through chipping away Republican support. Although the authors did not use the term “realignment,” such large changes in four years would merit that description. Second, Proposition 187 was said to politically mobilize the famous “sleeping giant,” the large but often politically inert potential Latino electorate, by getting Latinos more politically engaged.

If so, that would be a major exception to what is known about electoral change in America. Immigration and race were hardly new issues in California or nationally. In addition, party identification is usually seen as quite stable throughout voters’ lifetimes. It usually requires a massive external shock or radically new information to make people convert their partisanship to another party. These well-established findings might suggest some skepticism about the possibility that these racial propositions had such power that they produced a major partisan realignment of Latinos in California.

We reassess the conclusion that Proposition 187, and the other racial propositions, represented a rare “tipping point” that marked an abrupt realignment of partisanship among Latinos in California. We argue that the existing empirical literature on the effect of the racial propositions on the support of the Republican Party might have been somewhat misled, since the studies were based mainly on modest number of surveys with quite small samples of Latinos. Our findings contradict the conventional wisdom about the role of Proposition 187 described earlier. In the early 1970s, over seventy percent of Latino registered voters identified themselves as Democrats. That strong Democratic Party loyalty would seem largely to be a remnant of the New Deal era. The support for the Democratic Party gradually waned through the 1970s and early 1980s, as earlier research has suggested. Yet previous research somewhat underestimates the Democratic advantage going into the 1990s. Our considerably larger data set shows that the Democrats had a 2 to 1 advantage over Republicans prior to Proposition 187.  Support for the Republicans surged during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.  Then it had already begun to reverse after the Gulf War in 1991, well before the Proposition 187 campaign kicked off in 1994.

We further provide extensive new data and pursue three different empirical strategies in this paper.  We re-affirm the long-standing conclusion in the literature that critical elections are indeed rare. Latinos in the state historically have had a low propensity to support the Republican Party. The lack of enthusiasm for the Republicans was evident especially among younger, unregistered Latinos. Proposition 187 was a political decision by GOP to secure its conservative base. It did not significantly affect Latino identification with the Republican Party and it also did not reverse the fortunes of the GOP in the state. We find that the claim that the racial propositions led to the demise of a political party in the largest state in the country has been somewhat exaggerated.




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