Prop 187: Still a Myth!


One of the nice things about having a blog is that I can write about anything that strikes my fancy. This morning, for no particular reason, I suddenly got interested in a question about California’s infamous Prop 187. This was a 1994 initiative that denied public services to illegal immigrants, and it was eagerly promoted by Gov. Pete Wilson and other Republicans in a truly toxic campaign. In the aftermath of that campaign, Latino support for Republicans cratered and the California Republican Party never recovered. Today it’s all but dead in statewide races.

That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. But when I pulled up the data, it didn’t look like Prop 187 had much impact at all: Republican decline was due to the steady increase in the Latino population—which was always pro-Democratic—and that was about it. Unsurprisingly, I got some pushback about this. Let’s take a look at it.

First, one reader suggested that instead of just charting the Democratic percentage of the presidential vote over the past few decades, I should chart the two-party share of the vote. That sounded reasonable. Here it is:

I still don’t see anything. There’s always going to be some noise in charts of voter behavior, but the surprising thing about this one is how little noise there is. The trend in support for Democratic presidential candidates is spectacularly steady and spectacularly well correlated with the increase in the non-white population. For the stat geeks among you, the Pearson’s r between those two lines in the chart is .97, which is off-the-charts high. Basically, it says that demographic trends explain nearly the entire change in the GOP’s fortunes.

So let’s move on to another objection. Keith Humphreys—who I blame for getting me into this mess—passes along a 2006 paper that tries to quantify the effect of Prop 187. As the authors acknowledge, this is hard to do because the data you’d like to have just doesn’t exist. They make do with Field polls over the period from 1980-2002, and the bottom line is this: they estimate that Latino support for Republicans dropped 11 percentage points following the passage of Prop 187.

I’ll confess to some uneasiness about this result. Why? Because the same paper estimates that Prop 209, which banned affirmative action, resulted in an increase of support for the GOP among African-Americans. This seems kind of unlikely. At the very least, it suggests some fairly large error bars on the numbers.

That said, I don’t really object to their results. A drop of 11 percentage points isn’t huge in absolute terms, and if the real number is, say, more like six or seven points, then it could easily be consistent with the voting behavior in my chart. A drop of that magnitude among a quarter of the population would show up as a very small blip in overall voting.

Roughly, then, my conclusion is this: Prop 187 probably reduced Latino support for the California GOP by about six or seven points, or maybe a little more. This is a smallish amount, and is basically swamped by demographics. It might account for about 5 percent of the change in Republican fortunes over the years, with the other 95 percent explained by simple population changes.

Finally, one last objection. This one amounts to: “I was there, and it was a volcanic upheaval. Latinos were pissed!” I can attest that this is absolutely right. But the fact that the war over Prop 187 made a huge impression on all of us doesn’t mean it changed voting behavior a lot. It just doesn’t. For that, you have to look at data of some kind and be willing to accept the results. And the data really doesn’t seem to support the conventional narrative about Prop 187. Prop 187 probably had an effect—it would be shocking if it didn’t—but it wasn’t that big. The basic story is simpler: Minorities don’t support Republicans, and as their population increased in California the Republican Party steadily became more and more marginalized.

And now for a guess: Minority hostility toward the Republican Party doesn’t depend very much on any particular insult. Prop 187, like so many other things, was just another piece of kindling on the bonfire of GOP contempt for every issue important to them. At this point, Republicans can nominate a guy like Donald Trump, and even that has only a smallish effect. It’s just more of the same.

If Republicans want this to turn around, they have to cut the crap and stop basing their continued existence on angry white guys. They need to:

  • Support affirmative action.
  • Support comprehensive immigration reform.
  • Slap down racism in their own ranks whenever it rears its head.
  • Support changes that make the criminal justice system less bigoted.
  • Stop routinely dismissing minority complaints as “grievance mongering” or “race hustling.”
  • Etc.

I can hear the objection of conservatives already: “Gee, Kevin, it sounds like you want Republicans to become Democrats.” But I don’t. Note that Republicans can continue to:

  • Support lower taxes
  • Support smaller government and less regulation.
  • Support gun rights.
  • Oppose abortion.
  • Support a strong military.
  • Etc.

I dunno. Maybe 95 percent of the Republican platform isn’t enough for them. Maybe changing even one smallish piece is too much to ask. But until that happens, minorities simply aren’t going to support Republicans. At this point, Republican stock among minorities is so low that even overtly hostile acts probably don’t hurt them all that much. Likewise, though, merely refraining from overtly hostile acts probably wouldn’t help them much. It’s just not nearly enough. If Republicans want to make any inroads, they have to actively support minority concerns. That’s a hard battleship to turn around, but it’s their only hope.