State's map a crazy quilt

September 29, 2012 

Welcome to the political geography of California. The accompanying surreal political map of California looks like a state on drugs, a wild refiguring of regions based on voting patterns.

Based on a study entitled: "California's Political Geography" by Eric McGhee and Daniel Krimm from the Public Policy Institute of California (for full disclosure, I'm on the PPIC board), this map graphically illustrates the political power of larger urban areas of the state. More people and more voters live in those regions and they eclipse -- some will contend distort -- the rest of the state's geography.

In contrast, the traditional map of California by land size misconstrues the political reality: San Bernardino, the largest county, carries little clout in statewide politics because it has so few voters.

The major population centers of our state are concentrated in the Bay Area and the Los Angeles region. They dominate this geography and, based on the presidential vote in 2008, they lean Democratic.

As you journey away from these political centers, the surrounding regions like the "Far East Bay, Santa Mateo/Santa Clara/Santa Cruz" and in the south "Coastal L.A., Long Beach, L.A. Suburbs and the San Fernando Valley" -- all are part of the S.F./L.A. political sphere of influence. And they, too, are part of Democratic country.

Overall, you can see why Democrats control the state's legislative offices. We appear to be a Democratic state. The only conservative strongholds are Orange County and parts of the Central Valley, along with small slivers of the far north and mountain parts of the state.

Mapping California's political geography corrects and blurs some assumptions.

According to the "Political Geography" report, in the 1960s and early 1970s, we were a state divided north and south. Bay Area liberals vs. SoCal conservatives.

By the 1980s, a shift began, Bay Area and Los Angeles County were pitted against everywhere else. Gradually, a west vs. east struggle unfolded, the coastal areas against inland California. With the heavily urban centers based along the coast, we here in the Valley were often called "the Other California."

But, like most things political, it's not quite so simple. For example, our Valley is not so homogeneous and more changes since the 1990s have occurred, reflected in the 2008 election. Sacramento and surrounding counties are now Democratic and became a shadow of the Bay Area with liberal voting patterns. Researchers surmise that the politics of the very liberal Bay Area have spilled over the Carquinez Straits, changing that region. Others claim that Sacramento has now seceded from the Valley.

Fresno is one of the few neutral regions of California, a solid-in- the-middle shade, a buffer between the two divisions. From the perspective of the southern San Joaquin Valley counties of Kings, Tulare and Kern, Fresno has changed, lost to the "other" side and filled with too many liberals.

Yet Fresno has it's conservative base, consider that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan came here to fundraise and took home millions of dollars.

When specific issues are considered, the lines are distorted even more. Not seen in our surreal map is a north/south division concerning abortion. The Bay Area tends to support laws that do not restrict abortion, while the Valley and Southern California trends in favor of restrictive legislation.

Yet the shades are even more ambivalent with other statewide issues such as reducing the state budget deficit with cuts or favoring more public services with higher taxes.

For those of us who live in the Central Valley, politically we may no longer be thinking like a separate region. According to the political geography of the state, many in the southern San Joaquin Valley have more in common with Orange County than with Sacramento.

However, a major difference remains: I do not believe Orange County feels they have an affinity with any place in the Valley. We might as well be from another state.

Indeed, you might conclude that for many in the outlying areas of the Central Valley, which include the northern areas of Shasta and Placer to the extreme southern counties of Kings, Tulare and Kern, the label "the other California" may no longer be fit.

Given the disparity of political geography, these regions think of themselves as "another" California or "not" California and may be proud of that distinction.

Award-winning author and organic farmer David Mas Masumoto of Del Rey writes about the San Joaquin Valley and its people. Send email to him at

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