California has long been ahead of the curve when it comes to demographic change. The shifts that have occurred here—the Latino population eclipsed the non-Hispanic white population in 2016; non-whites now make up a majority of California residents—are expected to spread throughout the rest of the United States over the next several decades.
But 2018 may be the year the state's political leadership reflects just how much its population has changed. Looking at the field for the eight statewide elected offices, it is entirely possible that none will be held by a white male after the 2018 election. (While Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, a white male, is the current front-runner in the race to replace Governor Jerry Brown, he faces strong challengers in his own party from Antonio Villaraigosa and John Chiang) That would be an historic, symbolic moment, both for the state and the nation.
The three incumbents running for re-election are all non-white—Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, and State Controller Betty Yee. The other open offices for statewide office include top-tier candidates or front-runners who are Latino, Asian, or African American.
This diversity is a sign of the state's demographic pluralism. But, beyond that, it is also indicative of how emerging ethnic groups—namely Latinos and Asian Americans—have built their political base in the state.
"Representation numbers for Asians and Latinos get worse as you go down to the local level. It should be the opposite."
Latinos are the largest ethnic group in California, and comprise 34 percent of the state's adult population. Yet they account for only 18 percent of likely voters, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Asian Americans, meanwhile, comprise 15 percent of the adult population and 12 percent of likely voters.
Implicit in those statistics is the fact that Asian and Latino candidates are winning statewide offices with the help of voters outside their ethnic group. Political analyst Mike Madrid, an advisor to Villaraigosa's gubernatorial campaign, says the data illustrates another fact about how Asian and Latino candidates have been able to climb up the political ladder: "Asians and Latinos in California have proven to be better at pulling the levers of establishment power than they are at actually engaging their constituencies or their electorate," he says.
While candidates from other ethnic groups have had disproportionate success on the statewide level (currently, there are two Latinos and two Asian Americans among the eight constitutional officers), they continue to be underrepresented in the legislature, on county boards of supervisors and city councils across California.
Among city elected officials, Latinos comprise just 18 percent of the statewide total. Asian or Pacific-Islander officials are just 5 percent. These groups may well be over-performing statewide, but they are still underrepresented in cities across California.
"Representation numbers for Asians and Latinos get worse as you go down to the local level. It should be the opposite. It shows that, while they still struggle to build true ethnic-based, grassroots coalitions, they've become masters at the establishment game," Madrid says.
So while California stands on the precipice of political history, there is still work to be done on the grassroots level. But Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, Inc., says that Democratic diversity on the 2018 ballot could have some unintended consequences.
"The potential good from this is that this representation among groups on the ballot could do something to spark particularly Latino turnout," he says. "But we have also seen these types of landmark elections lead to ethnic backlash. Even in California, that is a very real possibility."