The last Democratic presidential nominee who won Orange County was Franklin Roosevelt in his 1936 re-election landslide over Republican Alf Landon. Since Orange County was created in 1889, it has voted for a Democrat for president just three times: in 1932, in 1936 and now in 2016.
As of December 6th, Hillary Clinton led Donald Trump in Orange County by more than 102,000 ballots and 8.6 percentage points [Clinton: 609,961 (50.9 percent); Trump: 507,148 (42.3 percent)]. Clinton's 102,000 surplus votes in Orange County exceed Trump's margin of victory in the pivotal states of Pennsylvania (47,000 vote margin), Wisconsin (22,000 vote margin) and Michigan (11,000 vote margin) combined.
Orange County was a Republican stronghold in the late 20th century, especially during the Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan eras. Nixon was an Orange County native, born in Yorba Linda. Reagan had close ties to the county.
The Eisenhower/Nixon Republican ticket dominated in Orange County in the 1950s as freeways, tract homes, industrial parks and tourist attractions (including Disneyland) replaced orange groves and bean fields. Eisenhower/Nixon trounced Democrat Adlai Stevenson 69.9 percent vs. 29.3 percent in Orange County in 1952. This was the Republican ticket's highest percentage among California counties in 1952 outside of the "cow counties" of Alpine and Mono. In 1956, Eisenhower/Nixon again soundly defeated Stevenson in Orange County, 66.8 percent vs. 32.3 percent (again, the Republican ticket's highest percentages outside of Alpine and Mono counties).
Richard Nixon defeated Democrat John F. Kennedy in California in 1960 by around 36,000 votes statewide; Orange County provided Nixon with his largest margin, nearly 63,000 votes (60.8 percent of total Orange County vote), to offset Kennedy's 55,000 vote margin in San Francisco and win the Golden State's 32 electoral votes. When Nixon defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey in California in 1968 by around 223,000 votes, Nixon's margin in Orange County exceeded 166,000 votes, the largest of any California county. Humphrey's margins in his top three counties combined (San Francisco, Alameda and Sacramento) were insufficient to offset Nixon's surplus votes in Orange County. Orange County alone accounted for nearly one-third of Nixon's narrow 512,000 national popular vote margin of victory in 1968. Nixon won all of Orange County's cities in the 1968 and 1972 presidential elections.
In the 1980s, Orange County was the heart of "Reagan Country." Ronald Reagan won Orange County by 353,000 votes over Democratic President Jimmy Carter in 1980 (Reagan: 67.9 percent vs. Carter: 22.6 percent), his highest margin of votes and his highest percentage among California counties. Reagan's margin of victory in Orange County in 1980 (353,000) was larger than in every state except California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, Ohio and Texas.
President Reagan won 74.7 percent of the Orange County vote in 1984, his best California county (generating a 429,000 ballot margin over Democrat Walter Mondale). This arguably was when Orange County Republicanism reached its zenith. Reagan kicked off his 1984 fall campaign with a Labor Day rally at Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley. Reagan said, "Being here among friends, seeing familiar faces, getting just a hint of that breeze from the Pacific Ocean renews our strength and purpose as we start our march to victory this November. And let me add, when people need a little sunshine in their lives and a feel for the optimism that fills the soul of this beautiful country, then I can assure them they'll find it in Orange County." (A statue of Reagan was unveiled at Mile Square Park in 2015.) Reagan won every Orange County city in 1980 and 1984, including a nearly 40,000 vote margin in Anaheim alone in 1984 (Reagan: 59,238 vs. Mondale: 19,266). Also in 1984, conservative Republican Robert Dornan defeated Democratic Rep. Jerry Patterson, ending 22 years of Democratic control of that Orange County congressional seat.
Orange County's votes kept California in Gerald Ford's column in the close 1976 presidential election. Ford narrowly won the Golden State by around 140,000 ballots. Orange County provided Ford's statewide margin of victory as Ford defeated Democrat Jimmy Carter by around 176,000 votes there. Ford won every Orange County city; his margin over Carter in Newport Beach exceeded 15,000 votes.
The last Republican presidential nominee who won California was George H.W. Bush in 1988. He defeated Democrat Michael Dukakis statewide by nearly 353,000 votes. Most of Bush's margin of victory was generated in Orange County, where he defeated Dukakis by nearly 317,000 votes [Bush: 586,230 (67.8 percent) vs. Dukakis: 269,013 (31.1 percent)]. Bush won every Orange County city in 1988.
Orange County trended more Democratic in recent presidential elections. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama narrowly lost Orange County to Republican John McCain by around 30,000 votes [McCain: 579,064 (50.2 percent) vs. Obama: 549,558 (47.6 percent)]. Obama won the cities of Aliso Viejo, Anaheim, Buena Park, Costa Mesa, Irvine, La Habra, Laguna Beach, Laguna Woods, Santa Ana, Stanton and Tustin.
On March 18, 2009, President Obama held a town hall meeting at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa as part of his first California visit as president. President Obama touted the recently-passed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and how it would "help combat climate change -- because the weather is already nice in Orange County, we don't want it to get warmer."
In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney defeated President Obama in Orange County by nearly 70,000 votes and six percentage points [Romney: 582,332 (52.0 percent) vs. Obama: 512,440 (45.8 percent)]. Obama won the cities of Anaheim, Buena Park, Garden Grove, Irvine, La Habra, La Palma, Laguna Beach, Santa Ana, Stanton, Tustin and Westminster.
Hillary Clinton is the first presidential nominee in 32 years to win every southern California county (every county with territory south of the San Bernardino/San Gabriel/Santa Ynez mountains): Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Orange, Riverside, San Diego and Imperial counties. Ronald Reagan won every southern California county in 1980 and 1984; the last Democratic presidential nominee who won every southern California county was Franklin Roosevelt in 1936.
Clinton's 102,000 vote surplus in Orange County alone offsets her deficits in the ten counties that she lost south of Sacramento (El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras, Tuolumne, Mariposa, Madera, Kings, Tulare, Inyo and Kern). Clinton's excess votes in Orange County alone offset all of her losses in California south of Interstate Highway 80.
In 2016, Kern County was the California county that gave the largest margin of victory to Donald Trump (in terms of net votes), nearly 31,000, followed by Shasta County (nearly 30,000 vote margin for Trump). So, in a sense, the heart of California Republicanism has shifted from Orange County to Kern County and Bakersfield, home of U.S. House of Representatives Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Until 2016, Orange County had the longest Republican voting streak in presidential elections among California's 58 counties. It backed Republicans in the nineteen presidential elections from 1940 to 2012. Orange County was one of five California counties that favored Republican Barry Goldwater against the 1964 Lyndon Johnson Democratic landslide (Alpine, Mono, Sutter, Orange and San Diego counties voted for Goldwater). Alpine, Mono and San Diego counties have voted Democratic in recent presidential elections. Sutter County (Yuba City) now assumes the mantle as California's most "stalwart" Republican county, as it has favored Republicans in every presidential election from 1944 to present.
The Last Democratic Presidential Victory in Orange County: 1936
When Franklin Roosevelt won Orange County in 1936, California had 22 electoral votes. The ballot contained all twenty-two names. Voters had to mark each of the 22 names in order to vote for president. Therefore, the vote total for president varied. In Orange County in 1936, the lowest vote total for a Democratic elector was 29,831; the highest was 29,839. The 1936 Orange County vote for the twenty-two Republican electors ranged from 23,488 to 23,495. The 1940 election was the first in which California voters cast a single vote for a presidential nominee's entire slate of electors.
Orange County, of course, has changed much since 1936 when it previously voted Democratic for president. The county's population then was under 130,000, compared to over three million today. The Pacific Electric interurban streetcar system linked Santa Ana and Newport Beach with Los Angeles. Freeways were non-existent. The county's orange groves were near their peak acreage, tended by predominately Mexican and Mexican-American workers, many of whom resided in "barrios" and "colonias," leading to the 1940s Mendez v. Westminster school desegregation lawsuit.
Franklin Roosevelt had long "coattails" in Orange County in 1936. Orange County voters joined Riverside and San Bernardino counties in ousting two-term Republican Congressman Sam Collins and replacing him with Democrat Harry Sheppard. Orange County elected a Democratic state senator, Harry Westover, who later became a federal district court judge. Orange County voters in 1936 ousted Republican Assemblyman James Utt, who later represented Orange County in Congress from 1953 until his death in 1970.
Democratic registration rose dramatically and Republican registration plummeted during the New Deal across the nation, including Orange County. In 1932, the first time that a Democrat won the Orange County presidential contest, total registration was 62,306, composed of 35 percent Democrats, 61 percent Republicans, three percent decline-to-state and one percent other.
Democrats had a voter registration advantage in Orange County by 1936. Total registration in Orange County for the November 1936 election was 65,954, composed of 53 percent Democrats, 44 percent Republicans, two percent decline-to-state and one percent other. Republicans re-gained their voter registration lead in Orange County by May 1944 and have held it for the past 72 years.
Orange County Voter Registration: "No Party Preference" and Democratic Voters Rising
Republicans have a slight, but diminishing, voter registration advantage today in Orange County. The October 24, 2016 California Secretary of State voter registration report says that Republicans constitute 37.8 percent of Orange County voters compared to 34.0 percent Democrats and 23.9 percent "no party preference." Democrats outnumber Republicans in Anaheim, Buena Park, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Irvine, La Habra, La Palma, Laguna Beach, Santa Ana, Stanton and Tustin. In Santa Ana, the county's seat and largest city, a mere 19 percent of voters are registered as Republicans compared to 55 percent Democrats (Santa Ana is Orange County's only city with a majority of registered Democrats). In Irvine, 35 percent of registered voters are Democrats versus 29 percent registered voters are Republicans. More Irvine voters (32 percent) have "no party preference." Irvine is the county's city with the highest share of "NPP" voters.
In October 2000, Republicans had a much larger advantage. Republicans then comprised 49 percent of Orange County registered voters, compared to 32 percent Democrats and 14 percent "declined to state." Over the past sixteen years, Republican registration in Orange County (down 11 percentage points) largely has shifted to "no party preference" (up ten percentage points). Whereas 660,561 Republicans were registered in Orange County in 2000, there are 580,398 in 2016 (a decline of nearly 80,000, even as the county's population and number of registered voters have expanded). "Declined to state/no party preference" registration has nearly doubled, from 190,950 in 2000 to 367,544 in 2016 (a 166,000 gain). Democratic registration in Orange County rose from 431,695 in 2000 to 522,325 in 2016 (a 90,000 gain).
Orange County Demographic Shift: Latino and Asians Shares of Population Rising
Orange County is much more Latino/Hispanic today, boosting Democratic registration in communities such as Santa Ana. Asian population growth likely accounts for much of the expansion of "no party preference" registration in communities such as Irvine.
The 2010 U.S. Census of Population found 3.01 million residents in Orange County. White alone, not Hispanic/Latino constituted 44.1 percent of population, followed by 33.7 percent Hispanic/Latino, 17.9 percent Asian alone, 1.7 percent Black/African American alone and 4.2 percent two or more races.
In 1990, Hispanics/Latinos comprised 23.4 percent or Orange County's population. Asians constituted 10.0 percent.