As the Republican candidates for president arrive today in Simi Valley to debate at the Reagan Presidential Library, they will find the Republican Party in California in decline, its registration falling and its remaining members older and more conservative than in Reagan's time.
It wasn't always so hard to be Republican in the Golden State. Republicans Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower all carried California, and Republican presidential candidates took the state nine times in 10 tries between 1952 and 1988. Reagan and Richard Nixon went from California to the White House.
But in the years since George H.W. Bush won California – the last Republican presidential candidate to do so – the party flailed, losing ground to Democrats as Latino registration increased and white, non-Hispanic voters' share of the electorate fell.
The state is now so heavily Democratic that no Republican presidential candidate is expected to campaign seriously here in the general election against President Barack Obama in 2012.
"We could easily see this coming," Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said. "What has been remarkable to me as a nonpartisan pollster is that the Republican Party has never chosen to confront this particular problem. With the Latino advantage to the Democrats, it's really a major uphill battle for the Republicans, and I think that's what's changed over time."
A new analysis by the Field Poll shows that even as California's total voter registration grew by more than 2 million voters over the past 20 years, Republican registration declined by 285,944 voters, to 5.3 million.
The party's share of statewide registration declined eight percentage points, to 31 percent.
Meanwhile, the proportion of registered voters who are Latino grew by about 2.3 million, from 10 percent of the state's registered voters in 1992 to 22 percent today, according to the poll. In the 2008 presidential election, those Latinos provided Democrats an advantage of more than nine percentage points.
"No one's talking about the sleeping giant anymore," said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. "The giant is here now, and Republicans aren't recruiting it."
If there is anywhere for Republicans to take heart, it is in inland California, where Republicans now outnumber Democrats 40 percent to 38 percent, according to the poll. Twenty years ago, Democrats not only dominated California's coastal areas – as they still do – but outnumbered Republicans by eight percentage points inland, in California's more conservative reaches.
DiCamillo said the division between coastal and inland counties "presents kind of a microcosm of America."
"The two parties are moving in different directions," he said. "The middle is not holding."
Indeed, California Republicans are more conservative than they once were. The proportion of state Republicans who identify themselves as strongly conservative increased from 34 percent in 1992 to 49 percent today, according to the poll. The proportion of Republicans identifying their politics as middle-of-the-road declined 11 percentage points, to 28 percent.
That change could affect how Republican candidates approach voters in California. A recent Los Angeles Times/USC poll showed Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney tied at 22 percent among Republican voters in California, but with the more socially conservative Perry leading Romney by 10 percentage points among tea party supporters.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann trailed, with 11 percent and 10 percent support, respectively, among California Republicans overall, according to the poll.
"Perry's support appears to be much stronger than Romney's," said poll director Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "Some of that may be a function of a burst of enthusiasm that occurs right after a campaign announcement, but at this early stage it looks like Perry supporters are much more excited about their candidate than Romney's are about him."
Conservative Republicans, just like liberal Democrats, tend to feel more intensely about their candidates than centrist voters do, he said.
No Republican hopeful is likely to beat Obama in California, where the president holds large leads in hypothetical, head-to-head matchups against them.
The debate at the Reagan Presidential Library is for a national audience. But the forum will be steeped in the tradition of Reagan, and California Republicans are likely to appreciate the references to the former governor.
They might find the 5 p.m. start time appealing, too. The proportion of Republicans who are 50 or older has increased from 40 percent in 1992 to 54 percent today, according to the Field Poll.
The proportion of Republicans younger than 40 has dropped to 25 percent from 41 percent in 1992.
The GOP presidential debate, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, is sponsored by NBC News and Politico. NBC News Anchor Brian Williams and Politico Editor-in-Chief John F. Harris moderate.
When: 5 p.m.
Where to watch: Live on MSNBC and streamed on Politico's website. Find the link and live updates at www.sacbee.com