California electoral geography

Rethinking California’s Political Divide

California Liberal and Conservative Precincts Map by David Latterman

California Liberal and Conservative Precincts Map by David LattermanRecent GeoCurrents posts on Northern California have emphasized the political divide between the left-leaning coast and the right-leaning interior. Such an analysis is reinforced by an incisive new report, David Latterman’s “The California Political Precinct Index,” published by the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good at the University of San Francisco. Based on returns from a number of California state ballot initiatives, Latterman has constructed a precinct-level map of political orientation, arrayed along an axis from the “most liberal” (in blue) to the “most conservative” (in red) areas. The map I have posted here overlays county-level data on Latterman’s precinct-based map, showing California’s ten most conservative and ten most liberal counties (as identified in the same report).

As can be seen, the gap between the northern coast and interior is profound; the northern half of California encompasses nine of the state’s ten most liberal counties and nine of its ten most conservative counties. From Big Sur on the central coast to southern Humboldt County in the far north, it is difficult to find conservative precincts within fifty miles of the ocean. Significantly, the wealthiest districts in the San Francisco Bay Area are depicted in blue. In southern California this pattern is not as pronounced. Although many rich areas of the southland—Malibu, Beverly Hills—are mapped as voting with the left, the tony Palos Verdes Peninsula is decidedly red.

The few liberal precincts in the conservative interior are instructive. In the San Joaquin Valley, the larger cities—Stockton, Modesto, and Fresno especially—are clearly marked blue. Other liberal San Joaquin precincts are linked to heavily Hispanic populations. In the more conservative Sacramento Valley, the college towns of Chico and Davis, along with the state capital of Sacramento, appear as liberal enclaves. Other left-leaning precincts in the interior are characterized by low population density and abundant natural amenities, which have attracted left-leaning outdoors enthusiasts. Examples include the Lake Tahoe area, Alpine County, eastern Mariposa County, and parts of Inyo County.

The most conservative portions of the state are also intriguing. In southern California, southwestern Riverside County is marked as quite far to the right; this area witnessed a major suburban housing boom just before the crash of 2008. Further north, a strip of western Kern County—the eleventh most conservative county in the state—is mapped in deep red. This area encompasses Midway-Sunset, the largest oilfield in California and the third largest in the United States. Some of the ranching areas in far northeastern California, especially in Lassen County, are shown as equally conservative.

Latterman’s geographical dissection of California’s left/right divide at the precinct level goes about as far as it can. More locally specific data is not available, and further analysis will eventually be frustrated by the limitations imposed by a simple, one-dimensional, left/right spectrum. Many political views do cluster along such an axis, but by no means all. Different regions are “liberal,” “conservative,” or “moderate” in very different ways. Mendocino and San Mateo counties may look the same on Latterman’s map, but they are not. Mendocino has proportionally many more radical leftists and left-libertarians—and many more people on the far right as well—than San Mateo County, a staid, well-off, pro-business, technologically oriented suburban expanse.

In some respects, moreover, the wealthy suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area are not as liberal as they seem from Latterman’s map or from the underlying data. This should perhaps come as no surprise; these same areas were reliably Republican voting as recently as the 1970s, and they contain many members of “the one percent.” Rich places historically incline to the right, as they still do in many parts of the United States. But because the general cultural tenor of the Bay Area is so strongly liberal, conservative viewpoints often remain hidden. Frequently they are not even recognized as such, in something of a mass case of political blindness. The people of Palo Alto and environs, the heart of Silicon Valley, view themselves as strongly environmentalist, deeply concerned about inequalities of wealth, and committed to the national triumph of the Democratic Party; in actuality, the policies pursued by their local governments are deeply anti-environmental, serve to exacerbate the gap between the rich and the poor, and help push the United States as a whole in a more conservative direction.

Substantiating these controversial if not outrageous claims will take up the next few posts, the final ones in the current series on northern California.


Political Complexities and Contradictions in California’s Mendocino County

California 2008 Election Map from Dave Leip's Atlas

California 2008 Election Map from Dave Leip's AtlasA GeoCurrents post last week highlighted the left-wing orientation of Anderson Valley in California’s Mendocino County, while noting that not all residents lean to the left. The same observation holds for Mendocino County as a whole. Recent election returns show roughly one-third of Mendocino voters selecting Republican candidates, including John McCain in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. As the election map posted here shows—in Dave Leip’s reverse color scheme*—Barack Obama’s 69 percent of the local vote was lower than what he received in counties to the south. Marin County gave 78 percent of its votes to Obama, and San Francisco 84 percent.

But as recent posts in the GeoNotes section of this blog have emphasized, maps that depict only most important patterns can miss significant secondary configurations. Unnoted in the first map is the fact that the county’s Democratic-voting block skews farther leftward than those elsewhere in the state. This tendency can be seen in the returns of the 2000 presidential election, although again it is not evident in the map. The second image posted here makes it seem as if Democratic candidate Al Gore barely won the county. Hidden are the votes gathered by far-left challenger Ralph Nader—which I have therefore added for Mendocino and several nearby counties. As can be seen, Nader’s fifteen percent take in Mendocino was double what he gathered in Marin and San Francisco, and five-times what he received in the Silicon Valley counties of Santa Clara and San Mateo.

The strongly left-leaning orientation of the Mendocino electorate has been evident in other recent elections. The county was the first in the United States to ban genetically modified crops, which it did by a popular vote of 57 percent in 2004. Subsequently, three other California counties, Marin, Santa Cruz, and Trinity, followed suit. But in both Sonoma County to the south of Mendocino and Humboldt County to the north, similar ballot measures failed. Note also that a number of counties in California’s Central Valley have passed resolutions expressly endorsing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

But as is often the case, local political coloration turns out to be more complex the more carefully it is examined. Mendocino’s anti-GMO resolution received strong backing from the wine industry, which wanted to maintain its environmentally responsible reputation, especially in export markets. Environmental proposals that would harm or inconvenience local vintners often have a different outcome. On one issue in particular, Mendocino County maintains a starkly anti-environmental stance: it is the only county in the state without a grading ordinance. In Mendocino, landowners can do almost anything they want with bulldozers, leveling their properties as they see fit. Grading has long been a hot topic, as environmentalists, concerned about erosion and endangered salmon-runs, push for regulation, while wine producers, ranchers, and others tend to lobby against it.

The lack of a grading ordinance shows that Mendocino’s leftist proclivities bend in a libertarian direction. Not surprisingly, marijuana-growers tend to advocate a “government hands-off” approach to issues that affect their own operations. But there has also been a broader libertarian left-right convergence on several local issues. Outsiders are often astounded at how rural property owners in Mendocino flout building-permit requirement. The county government largely ignores such violations in rural areas. To compensate for the resulting revenue loss, it has come to assess property taxes by aerial surveys, which reveal unregistered recent construction.

Beyond grading issues, Mendocino County’s environmental record leaves much to be desired. Both wine and marijuana have a sizable water demand, and although total precipitation is heavy, summers are bone-dry. As a result of expanding cultivation, the summer flow of the Navarro River and other local streams is diminishing. The biggest environmental failing, however, is the electricity consumption of the marijuana industry. Although most growing in the county occurs outdoors, indoor cultivation is increasingly common, as prices are higher, seclusion is easier, and harvests occur year-round.  The carbon-footprint of the practice, however, is extraordinarily large, as the necessary high-intensity lighting, ventilation, and de-humidification all have a major power draw. According to the New York Times, for California as a whole, “indoor [cannabis] cultivation is responsible for a whopping 8 percent of household electricity usage, costing about $3 billion yearly and producing the annual carbon emission of a million average cars.”

*The colors are reversed because Leip began his superb atlas before the New York Times published its famous “Red America/Blue America” map in which Republican-voting states and counties are depicted in red, and Democratic-voting ones in blue.