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San Benito: California's Bellwether County

Corey Cook

This November, California voters will be making a lot of important decisions.  Who will head to Sacramento?  Which way will the state go on Prop 30 or 37?  On Election Day there's one place that has the answer to all these questions, and it's right in our own backyard. 

Allen Ritter hasn’t worked as a Navy or commercial pilot for decades.  But he’d never consider himself retired. At 77-years-old, Ritter still works on his farm where he grows small crops for a local seed company and flowers for Whole Foods. When it comes to politics, he describes himself as a life-long Republican.  “On a national level I am a little upset with our current president and uh the direction he seems to be taking us these days. It’s just, it’s really scary,” said Ritter.  Ritter is like a lot of his neighbors. In the rural parts of San Benito County, most registered voters are republican, but in the county’s urban areas it’s a different story.  There most are democrats like Kathi Morris.  After commuting to a job in San Jose for years, she now runs a local cleaning business and volunteers for the county’s democratic committee. “I expect that President Obama will be re-elected, and I’m hopeful that he will be re-elected because I want the country to move forward.  I don’t want to go back to Bush’s policies and I think that will happen if Romney is elected,” said Morris.

Voters like Morris and Ritter are what make San Benito County California’s bellwether county.  For the past ten years, when it comes to state elections for measures and offices, as San Benito County goes, so goes the state. “It’s sort of fun parlor game, you can tell your friends that this is the county to watch on election night,” said Corey Cook with the University of San Francisco's Leo T. McCarthy Center.  But that got Cook wondering: how could San Benito County be the state’s bellwether when in so many ways it doesn’t look like the rest of the state?  San Benito has higher Latino population, but lower Asian and African-American populations than the rest of the state. Plus most Californians live in urban areas, but San Benito is an agricultural county with only two cities: Hollister and San Juan Bautista.  Cook recently completed a study on the county.  “You see these two sort of towns that are largely these San Jose bedroom communities that are pretty bright blue, and democratic surrounded by these pretty bright red conservative rural areas. I think that’s what you see in California, so I think it really is emblematic of the state as a whole,” said Cook.

Knowing San Benito County’s status as California’s bellwether can be more than just a fun parlor game.  Cook thinks the rest of the State can learn from this small community on the Central Coast. “To me the real value in a place like San Benito is how does its county board of supervisors deal across these divisions?  How do you overcome the challenges of this polarization, of it being very conservative and a very progressive place, a very urban and a very rural county? How do they deal with those differences in ideas, differences in interests that emerge within a single place? I think that’s where California can really learn from a place like San Benito County,” said Cook.  San Benito County will be the place to watch on election night this November, but maybe not in elections to come. Cooks says as the county grows and demographics change, it will likely lose its bellwether status.