COMMMENTARY: Election bellwether or follower?

Can San Benito County returns reliably predict state outcomes?

San Benito County has the reputation of being a bellwether county in California presidential elections by reliably predicting or mirroring the winning percentage. The results of the last three presidential elections reinforce that opinion because the percent that went to the Democratic nominee locally was very close to the percent they captured statewide. Using the returns from 2004, 2008, and 2012 presidential elections, San Benito County had an average deviation of 1.12 percent from the state winner’s eventual portion.

Amazingly, that was only good for second place; for the same elections the winner was sparsely populated Alpine county with an average deviation of only 0.62 percent. The other county in the running was Santa Barbara, with a three election deviation of 1.53 percent.

That result could be explained merely because San Benito is a Democratic-leaning county in a Democratic-leaning state. The other question is, can that record of predictions be extended to statewide propositions?  That is a much tougher, perhaps unattainable, accomplishment. 

To rate propositions I analyzed a small, current, sample – the six on the November 2014 ballot.  I compared the election results in San Benito County to three other data sets; directly to California statewide returns and indirectly to liberal returns represented by San Francisco County and conservative returns represented by Orange County.

Using abbreviated descriptions, the six propositions on the state ballot were, Prop 1 – Increased water reserve, Prop 2 – Increased budget reserve, Prop 45 – State control of health insurance rates, Prop 46 – Increased medical lawsuits, Prop 47 – Reduced criminal sentences, and Prop 48 – Expanded Indian gaming. For my purposes, I defined a significant difference as more than 8 percent.

San Benito County differed more than 8 percent from statewide returns in two cases; Prop 46 and Prop 48.  Statewide, Prop 46, increasing medical lawsuits, captured only 33.1 percent yes votes, but 43.0 percent in San Benito County, a difference of 9.9 percent. San Francisco yes votes were 34.4 percent and Orange County yes votes were 31.7 percent.  San Benito was significantly out of step with all three. [Correction] The total votes received for all propositions were  NOT significantly differenft.

Statewide, Prop 48, to expand Indian gaming, captured only 39.1 percent yes votes, but attained 50.8 percent in San Benito County, a difference of 11.7 percent and a “flip” that would have passed that measure if the state had voted like the county. San Francisco gained 45.2 percent yes votes and Orange County gained 36.7 percent yes votes. [Correction"] This higher APPROVAL rate might have been a holdover from previous attempts to open a casino nearby.

Using the eye test, not statistical analysis, it appears that when it comes to the types of issues covered by propositions, San Benito County voters do not reflect state sentiment as a whole, but no one should expect otherwise. 

As for the presidential elections, we were close to perfect in the recent past. To get another current data point on presidential elections we will have to wait until 2016 – and that is something for which we should all be thankful.


Marty Richman

Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Marty (Martin G.) spent his teen years in northern New Jersey. He served more than 22 years on active military duty, mostly in Europe, and is a retired U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 4, Nuclear Weapons Technical Officer. Marty then worked 25 years in various engineering and management positions in the electronics and energetic materials industries supporting the communications, computer, aerospace, defense and automotive sectors. He is a graduate, summa cum laude, from The College of Hard Knocks, among his numerous awards and accomplishments. He was a regular weekly Op/Ed columnist and feature writer for The Hollister Free Lance for seven years and a member of its editorial board for five years. Marty is a frequent commentator and contributor to BenitoLink on a wide variety of local, state, national and international subjects.   Marty was elected to represent the City of Hollister District 4 on the City Council in November, 2018. Marty and his wife, Joyce, have been residents of Hollister since 1996.