Wednesday, November 25, 2009




Maybe Carly Fiorina has analyzed the same numbers that trouble Meg Whitman. Maybe that’s why Fiorina, the onetime wonder woman of Silicon Valley who engineered Hewlett-Packard’s takeover of Texas-based Compaq Computer Corp., took several months deciding whether to challenge the supposedly vulnerable U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer.

There’s no doubt Whitman, the former eBay chief executive who has already pumped almost $20 million into her campaign for governor, ran the numbers on California’s current political reality, which is very different from what past Republican governors like Ronald Reagan, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson dealt with.

Whitman, the current frontrunner in most polls in the three-person field seeking the GOP nomination to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger, ran through a bunch of statistics during one remarkable meeting with local elected officials in the Riverside County town of Menifee.

Although the session came while most public officials were talking budget figures, the numbers Whitman took up were demographic.

Republicans, she noted, made up just 31.1 percent of registered voters in California in the most recent report from Secretary of State Debra Bowen. Democrats were at 44.6 percent, with the vast bulk of the remaining 24.3 percent of voters registered decline to state.

So, she said, any Republican seeking statewide office starts off with a deficit of more than 13 percent.

This sets up some daunting tasks for any GOP candidate not named Schwarzenegger, Whitman realizes. To win next November, any Republican will need to win over at least 20 percent of registered Democrats and 60 percent of independents, plus taking more than 90 percent of registered Republican votes.

Schwarzenegger accomplished all that and more in 2006, when he won over more than 30 percent of registered Democrats and took a majority of independents. But Schwarzenegger is a unique figure in California political history, perhaps comparable only to Jesse Ventura, the one-term governor of Minnesota who also appealed across all party lines. Like ex-professional wrestler Ventura, Schwarzenegger had wide appeal traced to his larger-than-life movie-star personality. And he embraced some issues that are normally Democratic property, like climate change.

Whitman told the Riverside County meeting she can come close to matching Schwarzenegger’s performance by dint of shoe-leather, and for sure she has traveled the state during the early months of this campaign as much as any recent candidate. But all her travels and speeches to Republican audiences – something Fiorina hasn’t begun to match – still leave her out of contact with 98 percent of voters. So the real “shoe leather” will be expended on television screens when Whitman begins spending the bulk of the fortune she’s placed in her war chest.

But even if she becomes ubiquitous during the primary season next spring, Whitman will be up against several new realities.

There was a time when California Democrats voted in far smaller percentages than Republicans. Even though congressional and legislative districts are apportioned by population, it consistently took far more votes to get elected from a Republican district than a Democratic one.

But that’s changed. In 2008, for instance, Democratic Assemblyman Jared Huffman won 121,000 votes while getting elected from a district spanning parts of Marin and Sonoma counties where a total of 175,000 ballots were cast. In a district that’s as solidly Republican as Huffman’s is Democratic, Orange County Assemblyman Chuck DeVore drew 86,000 out of a total of 150,000 votes cast.

Perhaps this was because 2008 was a presidential election year with an immensely popular (at the time) Barack Obama topping the Democratic ticket, but in two of the most solidly partisan, highest-turnout districts in California, Democrats substantially outvoted Republicans. That would never have occurred as recently as 20 years ago.

It’s true that in some strongly Democratic districts, especially those with large Latino population, it still doesn’t take very many votes to get elected. An example is the San Fernando Valley district of Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, who won last time with 74 percent of the vote, but still only had a total of 49,000.

There was a time when such low vote counts in Democratic districts like that one meant that even though they had little chance of winning legislative majorities, Republicans still had a decent shot at statewide office. But Latinos vote in far larger numbers now than 20 years ago, as do African Americans, with both groups strongly Democratic. Now instead of turnout in mostly Latino districts matching 20 percent or less of the Republican vote in counties like Orange and San Diego, the vote in Latino districts is usually more like half the level seen in those strongly GOP areas.

It’s a new and constantly changing demographic and political reality that makes getting elected in California far tougher for Republicans than ever before.

And that’s enough to give anyone in the GOP pause before sinking untold time, energy and money into a statewide race, no matter how vulnerable a Democratic opponent might appear.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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