Six Californias – What Would It Mean Politically?

Ethan Rarick and Jack Citrin
Ethan Rarick is the Director of the Robert T. Matsui Center for Politics and Public Service at the University of California, Berkeley. Jack Citrin is the Director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

We will say right up front that we believe there is no chance California will be allowed to subdivide itself into six states, a question that has submitted signatures in hopes of qualifying for the 2016 ballot. As we have explained elsewhere, we believe Congress would never approve such a plan, because it would dilute the political power of other states. But as a fun political exercise – and one that may yield some insights into the politics of California as it exists today – we analyzed how these six new states would shape up politically. (We’re not saying that any of these outcomes would be good or bad; we’re just presenting the data.)

Voter Registration

The “Six Californias” ballot measure being pushed by businessman Tim Draper divides the state along existing county lines:

  • Jefferson – the far north of current California. Some counties here have already voted to secede, although of course that has no legal weight.
  • North California – a swath running from Marin County through the northern reaches of the Bay Area and Sacramento and then on up to the Nevada border.
  • Silicon Valley – the heart of the Bay Area. This would become America’s richest state, surpassing Connecticut.
  • Central California – the central and southern portions of the Central Valley. This would become America’s poorest state, falling below Mississippi.
  • West California – essentially Los Angeles County and its northerly neighbors.
  • South California – essentially Orange County, the Inland Empire, and San Diego.

We took the most recent Report of Registration from the Secretary of State’s Office and calculated registration numbers for each of the six new states. (Technically, Draper’s measure would allow counties until 2017 to pick a different new state, so long as it was adjacent, but our analysis is based on the division of counties listed in the ballot measure.)

Democratic % Republican % No Party Preference%
Jefferson 34 36 23
North California 43 30 21
Silicon Valley 51 18 25
Central California 38 39 19
West California 49 23 18
South California 35 37 23

As shown in the accompanying table, three of the states – Silicon Valley, West California, and North California – would be overwhelmingly Democratic. Silicon Valley would have so few Republicans that they would be substantially outnumbered by No Party Preference voters. The other three new states – Jefferson, Central California, and South California – would have a Republican edge, but in all cases the margin would be surprisingly close, either one or two percentage points.

We also calculated registration figures from 1994, twenty years ago, which highlights the recent development of the state’s east-west political divide. Over that time, the three predominantly coastal new states have all become more Democratic – Democratic margins have increased in Silicon Valley and West California and the Republican margin has shrunk in South California. The one new state that would be entirely inland – Central California – shifted in the opposite direction, from an eight-point Democratic advantage to a one-point Republican edge.

Senate Outcomes

But of course registration figures do not necessarily reflect how a state would vote, especially as more voters register as No Party Preference. Statewide election outcomes in the new states are a critical question for the national political scene, since the 38 million residents of current California would see their representation in the U.S. Senate suddenly balloon from two members to 12.

To gauge likely statewide results in high-profile Senate races, we examined past voting records – dividing up the county-by-county totals as if the Six Californias had existed – in presidential, gubernatorial, and U.S. Senate races stretching back to the 2004 election. Obviously this is an imperfect method – the same candidates could not have run in all six states, campaigns would have been run differently with different state borders, etc. – but at least this analysis offers some objective measure of likely outcomes in the new states.

Three of the states would have produced overwhelmingly Democratic track records. Silicon Valley would have chosen Democrats every time, including Phil Angelides as governor in 2006. West California and North California would have been only slightly less Democratic, choosing Arnold Schwarzenegger over Angelides for governor, but otherwise electing all Democrats.

On the other end of the spectrum would be Central California, which would have elected Republicans all but once. The only exception would have been Dianne Feinstein’s reelection bid in 2006, when she would have defeated Richard Mountjoy. Jefferson would have been almost as Republican, voting for Democrats only twice. Feinstein would have won the 2006 Senate race there as well, and, perhaps surprisingly, Barack Obama would have carried Jefferson in 2008.

South California would have been far and away the most competitive of the new states, electing Democrats five times and Republicans four. George W. Bush would have carried the state in 2004, but Obama would have carried it in both 2008 and 2012. In gubernatorial races, South California would have elected two Republicans – Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006 and Meg Whitman in 2010. In Senate races, Dianne Feinstein would been elected in both 2006 and 2012, while Barbara Boxer would have won in 2004 but lost her seat to Carly Fiorina six years later.

Another way to look at this issue is to imagine the likely partisan composition of the Six Californias’ 12-member Senate delegation as it might exist today. Examining the two most recent Senate races in 2010 and 2012 and using Boxer, Feinstein, Fiorina, and Elizabeth Emken as partisan proxies for the candidates who really would have been running, we see that seven of the 12 senators from the new California statelets would be Democrats. Democrats would hold both seats in Silicon Valley, West California and North California. Republicans would hold both seats in Jefferson and Central California. The Senate delegation for South California would be split.

Presidential Elections

What about presidential elections? The Legislative Analyst’s Office calculated the population totals for the six new states, and in the table below, we calculated the likely Electoral College vote for each new state by dividing the total population by the ideal House-district size of 725,000 and adding in two Senate seats. For perspective, we’ve added the existing state with the closest population total:

State Population Electoral College vote Current comparable state
West California 11,563,717 18 Ohio
South California 10,809,997 17 Ohio
Silicon Valley 6,828,617 11 Washington
Central California 4,232,419 8 Kentucky
North California 3,820,438 7 Oklahoma
Jefferson 949,409 3 Delaware

Using those Electoral College numbers, here is how the Six Californias would have divided up their Electoral College votes in the four most recent presidential elections, along with the Democrat’s winning margin in current-California for each election (strictly speaking, these numbers ignore the decennial reapportionments, so the Six Californias would have had fewer Electoral College votes in the earlier elections, but it still serves as a rough measure of how the new states might vote going forward):

Electoral College vote of the Six Californias Democratic margin in current California
Democrat Republican
2012 53 11 23.1
2008 56 8 24.0
2004 36 28 10.0
2000 38 28 11.8

It’s clear that breaking California into six pieces would give Republicans a chance to win a state or two, but at least in recent years, it would have done them surprisingly little good. In 2012, Obama received 61.7 percent of the national Electoral College vote. Had the Six Californias vision been in place, he would have received 60.2 percent. Similarly, in 2008 Obama received 67.8 percent of the entire Electoral College, whereas he would have received 66.8 percent under the Six Californias plan.

Why would the Republicans have received so little benefit from breaking up current-California’s Electoral College bulk? Because each of the four or five states carried by Obama would have had two additional Senate seats counted in its Electoral College allotment, and those would have roughly offset the small Republican pickup of a single state or two.

For Six Californias to have made a difference in the presidential outcome, you must go back at least to 2000. In that year, the extra Electoral College votes that George W. Bush would have received by carrying three of the baby Californias might have rendered the Florida outcome moot. Bush might have won even with Gore carrying Florida. We haven’t bothered to go back and reapportion all of the 55 states that would have existed under the Six Californias plan, and the Electoral College outcome would have been so close that we can’t be sure of the exact result.

But the broader point is that it takes an astonishingly close election for the division of California to make a difference in the Electoral College result. In recent years, with the Democratic candidate carrying at least four of the new states, there would have been no meaningful change at all.

Future Changes

Of course the real question politically is how the Six Californias would behave going forward. It’s hard to see the heavily Democratic coastal states turning Republican any time soon, but what about the three states where Republicans would start with a narrow registration edge?

It’s possible that the very creation of new states would alter the political landscape in the Republicans’ favor. GOP candidates might be able to win down-ticket offices such as Attorney General or Treasurer, races where most voters cannot identify the candidates and vote based solely on partisan cues. In turn, those victories could allow them to build a “bench,” a set of candidates who had already won statewide races and could move on to higher-profile elections for governor or the Senate. Or, given the evidence that voters are geographically sorting themselves into distinct partisan areas, it’s possible that more conservative voters might flee the coastal Californias for a more conservative inland state (not to mention more affordable housing). If those changes were to occur, splitting the state into six component parts might help Republicans politically.

But such changes would reflect a departure from the current trends. Take, for example, the would-be state of Central California, which would have the highest current Republican registration of any of the Six Californias. As we noted above, if Central California had existed 20 years ago, it would have had a Democratic registration edge, so over the last two decades Republican strength has grown. But GOP gains occurred mostly in the 90s, and in the past 10 years, the trend has reversed. Using the final Report of Registration before each November General Election, here is Republican registration in Central California from 2004 through 2012. We don’t have the final pre-November report for 2014, of course, but the GOP figure could well be down again. (These numbers use Republican registration as a share of two-party registration, so the increasing number of independents is not an issue).

2004 53.9%
2006 53.5
2008 51.7
2010 51.0
2012 50.6

Those numbers suggest fading Republican power, even in the area that would become the most Republican of the six new California statelets. Given the ever-increasing diversity of the electorate and the GOP’s difficulty in wooing Latino voters, the trend could easily continue. If so, chopping up the state could produce not merely Six Californias, but Six Democratic Californias.

Ethan Rarick is the Director of the Robert T. Matsui Center for Politics and Public Service at the University of California, Berkeley.

Jack Citrin is the Director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

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