Terry McAteer: Gone blue: The unique link between Nevada and Orange counties
December 4, 2018
The counties of Nevada and Orange may be alphabetically linked on the list of California counties but most residents of each would agree that we are on diametrically opposite ends of the spectrum.
We are rural and they are urban. We are proud Northern Californians, while they are entwined in a network of SoCal freeways somewhere down there. We shop and eat at our local mom and pop stores; they eat at chain restaurants and shop at "the mall." We love our seasons and they worship the sun. Strangely though, despite our differences, we are politically linked like no other two counties in this state.
Nevada County was once a safe haven for the Republican candidates while Orange County has been the GOP standard bearer in the state for decades. Since 1948, and nearly every election for the next 60 years*, the two counties tracked each other to a tee.
A shockwave occurred, though, in 2016 when Nevada County and Orange County both supported Hillary Clinton for president. Political observers were quick to ask: Was this an anomaly or a foreshadowing of a monumental shift in California politics? Was this shift in keeping with trends on a national level?
By 2018, the answers to the questions became clear as the blue shift appeared to be permanent, with Orange County stunning the nation by electing Democrats in all seven congressional seats in the county. Possible conjecture by political pundits was that this might solely be an anti-Trump vote on the federal level; one immediately debunked by the fact that for the first time since World War II, Orange County voted for a Democrat as its governor.
Nevada County also tracked with Orange in this blueing trend by voting for a Democrat for Congress by a 10-percentage point margin (even though she failed to carry the district, which stretches to the Oregon border). For longtime local political hacks like myself, the truly unbelievable occurred when Democrat Gavin Newsom won Nevada County by 5 percentage points.
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Political scientists, like myself, love to draw conclusions when looking at the political data concerning Nevada and Orange counties. Sure, we both are fairly non-diverse in terms of our ethnicity but this trend should put us firmly in the red category. It's also not that women have been empowered to go to the polls in massive numbers, as the voter turnout in our two counties has always remained near the top in the state. If not these factors, then what is our common thread that is turning both counties blue?
One of the possible answers lies in a statistic entitled "educational attainment." Nevada County and Orange County, for all of our differences, have the same percentage (39 percent) of our citizenry who have a college degree or higher — 7 percentage points higher than the state average. In fact, the growth of our population with a college degree as a percentage of the total population in both counties has steadily grown over the past few decades. In 1970, when both counties were solidly Republican, only 9.7 percent of Nevada County and 15 percent of Orange County had graduated from college.
This is a nationwide trend. The states with a higher percentage of people with college degrees (such as Massachusetts (41 percent), New York (35 percent), Oregon (32 percent), Virginia (37 percent) and California (32 percent) are all turning more blue as their populace have a higher "educational attainment" level than solidly red states, such as many Southern states (Mississippi, 21 percent, etc.) and Midwestern states (Oklahoma, 24 percent, etc). This division has developed due to the fact that most of these "educational attainment" states rely on jobs in finance, technology and commerce which demand college degrees.
Furthermore, "high quality of life" states also attract those with a higher educational attainment level due to their higher-than-average level of income. The gap appears to be widening as those with college degrees are wanting to move to more urban areas (like Orange County) or quality of life communities (like Nevada County) where college degrees are required for employment or higher incomes needed for housing. Moreover, states with increasing "educational attainment" levels such as Montana (30 percent), Georgia (29 percent), Kansas (32 percent) and Arizona (29 percent) appear to be moving toward the blue category as seen in the recent election results.
The shift from red America to blue America for college grads is profound. This growing link between "educational attainment" levels and political ideology is certain to have a more far reaching impact in the near future.
As a retired school superintendent, my next column will explore the K-12 educational policy issues that have separated our blue and white collar workforce.
*Except 1964 when Nevada County voted for LBJ and in 2008 for Obama.
Terry McAteer, who lives in Grass Valley, is a member of The Union Editorial Board. His views are his own and do not represent the views of The Union or its editorial board members. Contact him at EditBoard@TheUnion.com.