UCI News

UCI Podcast: OC election analysis and social justice under Biden

Louis DeSipio discusses how mixed results of the last few years demonstrate Orange County’s "purple" identity

November 17, 2020
UCI Podcast: OC election analysis and social justice under Biden
Louis DeSipio, a professor of political science and Chicano/Latino studies at UCI, discusses the Orange County election results and how President-elect Joe Biden will influence social justice issues. School of Social Sciences

A wave of Democratic victories in Orange County during the 2018 midterm election — including four Congressional seats that flipped from red to blue — convinced many that Republicans’ days here were numbered. But this year, the trend reversed and Republicans reclaimed two of those seats. 

Demographic changes in the last few decades have resulted in a political reorienting in Orange County, according to Louis DeSipio, a professor of political science and Chicano/Latino studies at UCI. In this episode of the UCI Podcast, DeSipio talks about how the mixed results of the last few years demonstrate Orange County’s purple identity — and the reasons behind it. He also discusses national voting trends this year among Latino voters, and offers some predictions for how President-elect Joe Biden will address social justice issues such as immigration.

Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsStitcherSpotify

Transcript

AARON ORLOWSKI, HOST

Two years ago, Orange County voters made history when they flipped four Congressional seats from Republican to Democrat. This year, however, voters flipped two of those seats back. These shifts suggest that this increasingly diverse county is neither the deep red land of Richard Nixon, nor a blue stronghold. It’s purple. How have local and national demographic changes changed politics today? And what is in store for immigrant communities under president-elect Joe Biden.

From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Aaron Orlowski, and you’re listening to the UCI Podcast. Today, I’m speaking with Louis DeSipio, who is a professor of political science and Chicano/Latino studies here at UCI.

Professor DeSipio, thank you for joining me today on the UCI Podcast.

LOUIS DESIPIO

My pleasure.

ORLOWSKI

Well, let’s look first at the local results here in Orange County. Tallies so far show that two Congressional seats that had flipped in 2018 from Republican to Democrat have now flipped back from Democrat to Republican. So Republicans picked up two seats. Can you tell some more about what happened there

DESIPIO

To understand what happened in 2020, I think you have to go back to 2018. And Orange County, I think, surprised and shocked the nation when all of its Congressional delegation was Democratic — a first in American political history. I think what happened in 2018 and then 2020 sort of reflect that Orange County is a purple area, meaning that it has sort of Demoratic adherents, it has Republican adherents and then it has a large middle, and that middle determines the election. So in 2018, as part of a national wave against the Republicans, all of the Congressional seats went to the Democrats. This time, where the national electorate was more divided and President Trump was guiding Republicans nationally, two of the seats flipped back to the Republicans. Also, candidates make a difference. And I think the Republican candidate and at least one of the races was much stronger in 2020 than in 2018.

ORLOWSKI

So you mentioned President Trump guiding things and the strength of the candidates. Do you think there are any other dynamics that have caused that change from 2018 to 2020?

DESIPIO

Well, I think the county is changing. So the fact that we’re now a purple district — or purple county — is really different than before. We have a lot more independents here. We certainly have a lot of racial and ethnic minorities, who nationally might be more likely to vote for the Democrats, but here, I think, are more likely to be a little independent and willing to go with the candidate. I think we see candidates coming out of those communities more than we used to. But we shouldn’t miss the larger point that President-elect Biden won the county pretty decisively. Secretary Clinton won the county pretty decisively in 2016 as well.

ORLOWSKI

Well, let’s back up a little bit because as you said Orange County is increasingly a purple region. But for a long time, that wasn’t really the case, and this was a Republican stronghold. For how long was that the case?

DESIPIO

Orange County was pretty solidly Republican from the 1930s on. And obviously in the 1930s, the population was pretty sparse. It wasn’t today as Orange County. But as Orange County evolved initially as a bedroom community in the 1950s and 1960s, and then developed its own industrial and manufacturing base in the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of the people that were drawn to the county heard the message of the Republican party, probably particularly Governor Reagan, then President Reagan, and accepted and endorsed the Republican agenda of that era of national defense and lower taxes and more of a libertarian approach to governance. Beginning in the 1990s the northern part of the county tilted more Democratic. And then going into the 2000s and the 2010s, you saw the rest of the county becoming purple, meaning that some years it would go Democratic, some years it would go Republican.

At the county-wide level, though, I think it’s now pretty solidly a Democratic area. As I say, the last two presidential races have been won, and not just won narrowly, but won pretty decisively, by the Democrats. Local governance is still — it’s obviously nonpartisan because this is California — but many of the local office holders, particularly in the central part of the county, in the southern part of the county, lean more to the Republican side.

ORLOWSKI

Well, that’s interesting to think about, because it seems like in general, nationwide, ticket-splitting, where a voter would choose candidates from different parties, is increasingly rare. But from what you’re saying here, it seems like it’s not uncommon for a voter to choose maybe the Democratic presidential candidate, but then vote for the Republican local candidates.

DESIPIO

Well, at the level level there often isn’t much choice. Democrats have not been, at least in the southern part of the county and to moderate degree in the central part of the county, haven’t been very active at running candidates. I think that will change. One of the interesting things in 2020 is it looks like a couple of the state Senate seats have flipped from Republican to Democratic. And that suggests that the Democrats are becoming a little more tactical about running viable candidates for non-federal offices, and also ensuring that they have the financial resources to run serious campaigns.

ORLOWSKI

Well one of the things that you mentioned was going back to the 1930s, Orange County has been a County of growth. And there’s been demographic changes ever since then, first in numbers of population, but also in makeup of population. So as we look at how the look of Orange County has changed in recent years, how is that influencing the political leanings of the county?

DESIPIO

Certainly a lot of the people that have moved into the county you know over the last three decades have been folks that are more likely to hear the message of the Democratic party. So that includes folks that have moved out from Los Angeles County, and brought some of those slightly more progressive leanings of at least parts of Los Angeles into Orange County. The other is immigrants and then their children. Orange County saw a big migration of Vietnamese immigrants at the end of the war with Vietnam. They initially tilted to the Republican side, but are now becoming more mixed, the second generation, the kids that were born here a little bit more mixed in terms of partisanship. We’ve also seen large scale migration from northern Asia and that more in the central part of the county. Again, the immigrant generation tended to be conservative but their kids (are) a little bit more open, and maybe that leads to some of that ticket-splitting. We’ve also seen a large, primarily Mexican, but Latino migration into the northern part of the county. And then the kids of that migration have diffused through the county. So you’re absolutely right. I mean, this isn’t the Orange County of the 1960s anymore. And the growth that we experience on a daily basis, I think is reflective of that.

ORLOWSKI

And these immigrant communities — candidates can’t count on going one way or the other. It’s a very diverse set of beliefs that they have depending on the community and the individual.

DESIPIO

Oh, absolutely. It’s often a mistake that national leaders and national parties make to speak of a Latino vote or an Asian American vote. I mean, that’s never been accurate. And I think the 2020 election reflected that pretty clearly. That said, what I think immigrant communities — and by immigrant communities here, I’m not just speaking to the immigrant generation, but their US-born children — need is political recruitment. It’s not automatic to participate in US politics. It’s actually pretty complicated. You need to register, you need to know when the election is. In 2020, a lot of that was pretty obvious, but in many local elections and the off-year elections, how you engage is not so obvious. And I think where the both parties have failed is to invest, as they did a couple of generations ago, in training new participants in the routinized kind of politics. So if you invest today, you’re likely to win over that family, or maybe more broadly the extended family, into your party for a generation.

ORLOWSKI

Speaking of the Latino vote, it seemed like on the national level, there were some shifts this year, 2020, compared to 2016. The Miami region seemed to shift more towards Trump. But meanwhile some states that have significant Latino populations shifted over into the Democratic column, like Arizona. So can you tell us, what do you see as some of the differences in how the, the Latino vote chose their candidates this year compared to 2016?

DESIPIO

Sure. I think the media, again, going in with this monolithic notion of an ethnic vote, didn’t look as closely as maybe they should have. Certainly, I think the Latino vote, if you average it nationally, did vote slightly more for President Trump in 2020 than it had in 2016. But I’d emphasize the word slightly. And I have a couple of explanations to that. One is Secretary Clinton was just better known in Latino communities than was Vice President Biden. She, through Bill Clinton’s term and then in her service in the Senate, made her own personal connections to Latino leaders nationally that Vice President Biden just didn’t have. So some of it, he went in with a slight disadvantage.

I think the second disadvantage that he had was that he wasn’t doing a lot of outdoor campaigning in the 2020 race because of the COVID crisis. So he didn’t do the kind of rallies that tend to excite and recruit new participants. Remember, I said that one important thing with immigrant and their children electorates is to do a little outreach and mobilization. So he did less of that and he certainly did a lot less of that in Latino concentration areas. The third disadvantage he had was maybe a legacy of the Obama administration — that was that President Obama had opened relations with Cuba, and that was very alienating to a segment of the Cuban American electorate, particularly in Miami-Dade County. I think you’re absolutely right that nationally there was a little bit of a small gain in President Trump’s vote among Latinos, a lot of it can be explained with just not bringing a lot of new people into the process, a little bit of a shift in Miami-Dade, and evidently a little bit of a shift along the Texas border. And I have a less rigorous explanation for that.

On the other hand, Arizona would not have been in the Democratic camp if there hadn’t been a sort of steady growth in the Latino vote in Arizona over the last decade or so. And Vice President Biden certainly was advantaged by that. Nevada, which we now sort of take for granted as a Democratic state, went through that same process of becoming steadily Democratic with the growth in the Latino vote and other communities of course, over the last decade under the leadership of former Senator Harry Reid, who knew how to run a ground campaign to bring in new voters in Nevada.

ORLOWSKI

And the conversation and the messaging around immigration issues was different this year, compared to 2016. Trump focused in his 2016 campaign significantly on immigration. The “build the wall” chants were a staple of his rallies, but that wasn’t so much of a focus this year. What effects do you think that had on the election?

DESIPIO

It was very interesting. It’s often said that President Trump doesn’t have strategy, he just sort of goes with his gut. That gut has worked, let me acknowledge. But in the 2020 rallies, there was much less messaging around immigration. And it was replaced in some ways with vague conspiracy theories, but also conversation about COVID. So I don’t know if Trump or Trump’s advisors recognized that they could make some small, but very tactically important gains among Latino voters, or if it was just that there was other things that went to the top of the agenda. But I think you’re absolutely right that that diminishment of the nativist message worked to President Trump’s advantage among Latinos, arguably other immigrant groups as well. The Asian American vote for Trump went up a little bit as well. And didn’t seem to alienate his base, who turned out for him and in historic numbers.

ORLOWSKI

Well, let’s look a little bit at the future here. So President-elect Biden will face potentially one of two different scenarios, depending on what happens in Georgia. Two Senate seats are going to a runoff there, and so the Senate in January might be in Democratic hands, or it might be in Republican hands. So in your view, how different are those two scenarios for Biden’s administration?

DESIPIO

Night and day come to mind. The opportunity — it has been, I think, 36 years since a newly elected president entered the presidency not controlling both houses of Congress. If president Biden is to achieve many of the promises that he’s made — particularly in domestic policy; he has a little bit more authority in foreign policy — if he’s going to achieve any of those goals in domestic policy, he needs Congress behind him. Certainly around some economic issues, I imagine you can work with Republicans. But around social justice issues — and here I would include immigration reform, environmental policy, some policing reform — the Democrats need to win those two seats in Georgia.

And, he needs to be tactical in appointing his cabinet so that he doesn’t take away any of his existing Democratic support. And that’s going to be very hard because a lot of the leading folks that you’d think of for the cabinet come out of states, are senators and a couple of those at least — Senator Warren, Senator Sanders — come from states with Republican governors, who would probably appoint Republican successors if either of those folks were to move into the cabinet. If Vice President Biden is going to be able to appeal to the folks that voted for him around policy issues, and not just because they oppose President Trump, he needs to win those two seats. It strikes me as sort of unlikely. The two runoffs in a state that has only marginally shifted to the Democrats in the 2020 election. Generally turnout in off-cycle elections is lower. It’s going to be hard to win those two seats. And I think there’s a certain amount of fatigue in Georgia, as there is in the nation, about yet more elections.

ORLOWSKI

Speaking specifically about the issue of immigration. What do you think might be in store under Biden? As you mentioned before, Biden struggled a little bit more with the Latino community compared to Clinton four years ago. So what do you think is in store under Biden?

DESIPIO

I think he’ll use executive action for some narrow, targeted, but very, very important immigration reforms. One would be to re-establish the DACA program and potentially with a slightly stronger legal foundation. It’s been challenged in the courts and it’s sort of on pins and needles regardless of President Trump’s efforts to eliminate it. I think that he will use his oversight of the Department of Homeland Security to refocus immigration enforcement efforts back to the model that was used in the Obama administration, which was to focus not in a scattershot way on all undocumented immigrants in the United States, but instead on those that have outstanding orders of deportation or criminal convictions, which I think is a much more sort of appropriate use of the immigration enforcement agency. I think he’ll undo some of the damage that President Trump has done to the naturalization program, the ability of legal, permanent residents to become United States citizens. And I think he’ll reestablish — as Trump has largely eliminated — our refugee and asylum program.

But those are things he can do that President Trump damaged through executive action or through oversight of the agency that President-elect Biden can quickly reverse once he assumes the presidency. The challenge Biden faces is that he will not be able to achieve his goal of a more comprehensive reform to the immigration system that would address who’s eligible to immigrate legally, what we do about the non-DACA recipients in the undocumented immigrant community, create a stronger, more predictable foundation for refugee and asylum policy. And as we emerged from the COVID era to focus our guest worker programs — of which we have many that admit large numbers of immigrants every year — on the parts of the economy that need them most, as opposed to the industries that have best been able to lobby Congress.

ORLOWSKI

Well, what other issues around social justice do you think will be at the forefront under a Biden administration?

DESIPIO

I think President-elect Biden has made the commitment to focus on environmental issues, and I think this is very much a social justice issue. I fully expect that we’ll re-enter the Paris agreement. I think that President-elect Biden is committed to that very, very strongly already. But I think that we will need some investment in clean energy, and that’s where it’s having Congress as an ally would really help. I think you can get some Republicans to vote for some programs in that area. I think using the Justice Department, as the Obama administration did very effectively, to hold local police forces accountable for excesses will return and it wouldn’t even surprise me if some of the same people that had been working in Justice late in the Obama administration were to return. Because those programs were incredibly effective, and actually local police forces largely liked them because they gave them clear guidelines as to what they could do and not do. I think probably the biggest contribution of a President Biden to social justice is just to reframe the national narrative. There aren’t good people on both sides and he will be clear about that, and will set boundaries for what is appropriate in the American system and not inflame the extremes, left or right, for that matter.

ORLOWSKI

President-elect Biden won the Electoral College and he won the popular vote by a significant margin, and then some of those crucial electoral college States the vote was by a thinner margin. So when you look at the messages that voters were sending this election, what is that key message? What do you think voters were saying?

DESIPIO

I think there were two messages that were sort of mutually incompatible. There was a segment of the electorate that believes that President Trump speaks for them, and were energized by his messaging and his lack of concern for COVID, and the desire for economic growth that he promised. And there was a separate message from the parts of the Democratic party that were dissatisfied with President Trump on multiple dimensions and sought reform of the system along a number of dimensions. President-elect Biden has promised to try to bring those communities together. I wish him luck. I think it’s a very challenging task, but the near-even division of those populations, and the way we’ve structured the United States Senate, which is not reflective of where population lives in the United States, makes it very difficult for him to achieve that goal, but simply dampening down some of the excesses in inflaming parts of the American population, I think will help.

ORLOWSKI

Professor Desipio, thank you for joining me today on the UCI Podcast.

DESIPIO

My pleasure.