The January 31st Florida Republican presidential primary has bought much attention to the Sunshine State's Interstate Highway 4 corridor. Many reports conclude that winning the I-4 corridor communities, extending from Daytona Beach to Orlando to Tampa, is the key to winning Florida and the presidency. (See, for example, the January 27, 2012 report on PBS-TV's Need to Know and the January 30, 2012 report on NBC News Rock Center.) California has its own "road to the presidency," State Route 99 in the San Joaquin Valley.
California has not been regarded as a "swing" or "battleground" state since 1992. However. many communities within the Golden State are presidential bellwethers or microcosms of the national electorate. As these California cities vote, so goes the presidency.
CalPolitiCal has analyzed city-level presidential voting statistics for all California communities for the five presidential elections beginning in 1992. Democratic candidates won California in all five elections, but the bellwether cities have generally voted like the nation as a whole, backing George W. Bush in 2004, for example. CalPolitiCal calculated the absolute value of the difference between each community's presidential vote percentage for the Democratic and Republican candidates and the national vote percentage for each election. These numbers were summed for five elections to create a "score." The lower the score, the closer the city voted to the national result.
The following are the twenty California communities that have most closely followed the national popular vote since 1992:
(1) Live Oak (Sutter Co.), 13.9%
(2) Brentwood (Contra Costa Co.), 16.7%
(3) Highland (San Bernardino Co., 17.1%
(4) Riverside (Riverside Co.), 17.8%
(5) Fresno (Fresno Co.), 18.6% (on State Route 99)
(6) Vacaville (Solano Co.), 18.9%
(7) Kerman (Fresno Co.), 20.6%
(8) Grover Beach (San Luis Obispo Co.), 21.1%
(9) Woodland (Yolo Co.), 21.9%
(10) Rio Vista (Solano Co.), 22.4%
(11) Madera (Madera Co.), 23.4% (on State Route 99)
(12) Modesto (Stanislaus Co.), 23.8% (on State Route 99)
(13) Vernon (Los Angeles Co.), 23.8%
(14) Merced (Merced Co.), 24.0% (on State Route 99)
(15) Torrance (Los Angeles Co.), 24.3%
(16) Fowler (Fresno Co.), 24.4% (on State Route 99)
(17) Lakewood (Los Angeles Co.), 24.6%
(18) Sonora (Tuolumne Co.), 24.8%
(19) Stanton (Orange Co.), 25.1%
(20) Dinuba (Tulare Co.), 25.2%
Five of the top 16 California presidential bellwether cities are State Route 99 communities in the San Joaquin Valley: Fresno, Madera, Modesto, Merced and Fowler. Most of these communities were established around Central Pacific Railroad (later Southern Pacific Railroad) stations in the 1870s.
The City of Live Oak (on the Sacramento Valley segment of Route 99) voted Obama 52.5%-McCain 45.8% in 2008, very close to the national results of Obama 53.1%-McCain 45.8%. Live Oak voted 0.6% below the nation for Obama and exactly the same as the nation for McCain. Consequently, Live Oak's "score" for the 2008 presidential election was 0.6%. In 2004, Live Oak voted Bush 51.0%-Kerry 47.7%. Its results closely corresponded with the national outcome: Bush 51.0%-Kerry 48.5%.
San Joaquin County is the best presidential bellwether county in California, although none of its seven incorporated cities is in the top twenty. Its "score" for the 1992-2008 presidential elections is 19.3%, comparable to presidential bellwether states such as Florida (18.8%) and Nevada (24.8%). In other words, if San Joaquin County were a state, presidential candidates likely would flock to it.
Presidential Campaigning in the San Joaquin Valley
Numerous presidents and presidential candidates have visited the Route 99 communities in San Joaquin Valley. The only Democratic presidential nominees who have won the eight Valley counties since World War II were Harry Truman in 1948, Adlai Stevenson in 1956, John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and Jimmy Carter in 1976 came close to winning the Valley -- both lost the Valley to Republicans by under 6,000 votes. The Route 99 corridor is bellwether or "swing" territory, but the rest of the Valley is reliably Republican, generally speaking.
The Valley vote helped to re-elect President Harry Truman in his surprise 1948 victory after his tour through Route 99 communities. Truman won California based on his 32,000 vote margin in the San Joaquin Valley -- he won California as a whole by 18,000 votes. Truman took special pride in helping to defeat longtime Republican Congressman Bertrand Gearhart, a staunch conservative who had represented Fresno County since 1935. (Cecil White, the Democrat who defeated Gearhart, lasted just one term in Congress.)
Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower won the San Joaquin Valley in 1952 to Democrat Adlai Stevenson by 30,000 votes, but lost the re-match in the Valley in 1956 by 10,000 votes.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon campaigned vigorously down the Route 99 corridor. Sen. Kennedy conducted a "whistle stop" train tour of the San Joaquin Valley on September 9, 1960. The train stopped in Stockton, Modesto, Turlock, Merced, Madera, Fresno and Tulare, among other Valley communities.
Kennedy said from the rear platform in Stockton: "I think here in this valley you know what can
be done. Today is the 110th anniversary of California's admission to the
Union. This country and this valley was a desert 100 years ago. It
shows what this State can do. It shows what this country can do." In Modesto, Kennedy responded to a question concerning religion from the audience assembled along the train tracks: "There is a question of do I believe all
Protestants are heretics. No, and I hope you don't believe all Catholics
are. May I say that it seems to me that the great
struggle today is between those who believe in no God and those who
believe in God. I really don't see why we should engage in close debate
over what you may believe and what I may believe. That is my privilege
and your privilege."These remarks carried special significance because three days later Kennedy delivered a major speech on religion before Protestant ministers in Houston. Kennedy said in Turlock, "This valley shows what can be done by
community effort. Here in this valley you have harnessed the land and
the water for the use of the people." In Merced, Kennedy noted that it was the 110th
anniversary of California statehood, touched on the Lincoln
presidential campaign a century earlier and called for the creation of
the federal Medicare program. He also said, "We are campaigning in this State of California because I think this is the place where this election can be won in November."
The stop in Madera was brief because of rain, Kennedy told the people assembled there. Fresno was the site of a significant Kennedy speech called "Pathways to Peace." His advance text said in part, "We are not satisfied with a so-called peace
that is merely an interval between two wars. And we are unwilling to
accept a peace of slavery, imposed upon us by foreign rulers. Neither do
we want the peace of the prison or the grave." Kennedy also said in Fresno: "This valley and this State have many problems.
We traveled today from Sacramento, down through the rain. If that rain
continues, there is a chance that the farmers of this valley who grow
raisins could lose in 1 day $50 million. It indicates as nothing else
does why I think it is important that this country concern itself with
what I conceive to be the No.1 domestic problem that the United States
faces, and that is the decline in agricultural income." Kennedy introduced his sister Pat Lawford, then a California resident, at most stops.
In the final days of the 1960 campaign, on November 4th, then-Vice President Nixon addressed a rally in downtown Fresno, where he said, "[C]oming to Fresno and seeing all these signs
reminds me of the trips that Pat and I have made in previous years out
through Sanger and Reedley and all the other towns that we couldn't get
to this time - and we thank you for coming not only from there, but we
understand from clear down Bakersfield way, from Modesto, Merced, and
all the way around. This is really a central California meeting - and,
believe me, it means we're on the way in the great Central Valley, and
if we're on the way there it means California all the way on November 8
for our ticket." He also delivered a major television address via KFRE-TV in Fresno (then a CBS affiliate on channel 12). Also in Fresno on November 4, 1960, Nixon issued statements on oil and Social Security proposed policies.
In 1960, Kennedy ended up winning the eight San Joaquin Valley counties collectively by 11,000 votes, but losing California by 36,000 ballots. (Kennedy decisively won Merced, Madera, Fresno and Kings counties, won narrowly in Stanislaus County and lost San Joaquin, Tulare and Kern counties.)
President Lyndon Johnson was the last Democratic presidential nominee who won the San Joaquin Valley. In 1964, he defeated Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater there by 140,000 votes. In 1968, Nixon won the Valley by 5,600 ballots, narrowly defeating Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Nixon took the Valley decisively in 1972, defeating Democratic Sen. George McGovern by 81,000 votes.
President Jimmy Carter visited Merced (where he held a town hall meeting) and Modesto on the July 4, 1980 Independence Day holiday. Joy Karin Boese, a girl who asked a question at the Merced event, was invited with her family to a private dinner at the White House with the Carter family and the family of U.S. Rep. Tony Coehlo on August 28, 1980. (Carter returned to Merced on May 3, 2010 to receive the Alice and Clifford Spendlove Prize in Social Justice, Diplomacy and Tolerance at U.C. Merced.)
Carter lost the San Joaquin Valley to President Gerald Ford in 1976 by a mere 5,000 votes. Carter came closer to winning the Valley than has any Democratic presidential candidate since the 1964 Johnson landslide.
In 1980, Republican Ronald Reagan swept the Valley as he did most of the nation, winning the Valley by 104,000 votes. Reagan defeated former Vice President Walter Mondale by 152,000 votes in the Valley in 1984. Vice President George H.W. Bush won the Valley by 82,000 ballots in 1988.
Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton lost the Valley to President George H.W. Bush in 1992 by 17,000 votes. Independent presidential candidate Ross Perot won 19.6% of the Valley's 1992 vote. President Clinton had a question-and-answer session with students
at Abraham Lincoln Middle School in Selma in September 1995. A year
later, Clinton returned to the Route 99 corridor to speak at another
school, Morris E. Dailey Elementary School in Fresno.
Clinton lost the Valley by a wider margin in 1996 to Republican Robert Dole, by 49,000 votes. Fresno County went narrowly to Clinton in 1992, but flipped to Dole in 1996. The Republican margin of victory increased in Kern County from 20,000 votes in 1992 to 30,000 votes in 1996.
In 2000, Gov. George W. Bush defeated Vice President Al Gore in the Valley by 118,000 votes.
First Lady Michelle Obama addressed the graduates of U.C. Merced in May 2009. A few months earlier, Barack Obama lost the Valley by 32,000 votes, but won San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced and Fresno counties. Four years earlier, Democrat John Kerry lost the Valley to President George W. Bush by 214,000 votes.