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Recent years have witnessed a resurgence of nativism, the practice or policy of favoring native-born citizens over immigrants, across the United States. This nativist sentiment is expressed as a growing distrust of the immigrants already in the country and a strong desire to tighten laws that keep others out. Nowhere has this sentiment been more evident than in California. In 1994, California legislators introduced thirty bills concerning legal and illegal immigration, and the state's residents produced two related ballot initiatives.
One of these initiatives was Proposition 187. Ostensibly, the purpose of this proposition was to deny certain publicly funded social and health care services to illegal immigrants and to prevent their enrollment in tax-supported educational institutions. Called by its supporters the Save Our State initiative, Proposition 187 became a lightning rod, diverting attention from the soured economy to immigration.
By 1994, California was in the midst of that state's worst recession since the Great Depression. During the early 1990s, the Golden State suffered numerous economic setbacks associated with military base closures and defense industry cutbacks. Nearly one million jobs were lost, state tax revenues declined, and the state experienced repeated budget deficits.
Proponents of Proposition 187 argued that California had become a welfare magnet for illegal immigrants at an estimated cost to California taxpayers of more than $5 billion a year. Stemming the tide of illegal immigration was necessary to halt the spread of disease, eliminate overcrowding in schools, and prevent wage rates from dropping still further as unemployed illegals competed for scarce jobs in a shrinking economy.
During the 1994 California election, both the gubernatorial and senatorial candidates debated the problems associated with immigration, offered immigration plans, and took positions on Proposition 187. This controversial proposition was approved by 59% of California voters. The propositions popularity with voters gives rise to two questions: How did the politicization of the immigration issue by both gubernatorial and senatorial candidates influence voting? and Were the state's economic condition and the strong appeal of Proposition 187 to voters related?
We argue that voter support for Proposition 187 is an example of cyclical nativism and that the impetus for this nativism was the sagging California economy. We develop hypotheses about how nativist attitudes might be reflected in the voting behavior of specific groups, and we test these hypotheses using Voter News Service (VNS) exit-poll data from the November 1994 California election. We formulate a two-stage probit model, which allows us to incorporate the political context surrounding the passage of this measure. We conclude that the California economy had an extremely strong, if not determining, effect on the passage of Proposition 187.
Voting for Propositions: Economics and Information
There is a paucity of research linking economic conditions with voting on ballot propositions. A recent study by Bowler and Donovan (1994) finds that, although voters are less likely, because of risk aversity, to adopt ballot propositions when economic conditions are poor, such measures may pass as a result of notoriety and subject matter. Because of this study's ambivalence, it does not provide a satisfactory explanation for the voter approval of Proposition 187.
However, a study of immigration policy opinion by Citrin et al. (1997) reveals a link between a worsening national economy and support for restrictionist immigration policy. Historical examples support this connection. The United States has enacted and enforced immigration restrictions to coincide with economic downturns and justified these restrictions with the nativist arguments of depressed wages, displaced workers, and scarce resources (Hutchinson, 198 1:492-504). For example, a review of the long-term relationship between the United States and Mexico reveals three cycles of increased nativism toward legal and illegal Mexican immigrants which have coincided with economic downturns brought about by wars and stagflation and have resulted in stricter immigration laws (Cornelius, 1982).
California has also viewed immigration in economic terms and has relied on nativist policies when resources were perceived to be scarce or competition for these resources intensified. For example, in 1920, California voters enacted an initiative that prohibited immigrants from owning land if they were racially ineligible for citizenship. These findings and examples suggest that an individual's view of the state's economy would be important in determining his or her support for Proposition 187.
Voters are also influenced by the information they receive. During an initiative election, standard election information shortcuts, such as a party identification or past experience, on which candidate voting decisions are usually based, are absent (Downs, 1957; Fiorina, 1981; Key, 1966). Because the information published by the state in the ballot pamphlet provides too many details and the initiative campaign offers too few shortcuts, voters may seek ways to reduce the information costs of voting on propositions (Cronin, 1989; Magleby, 1984).
In the 1994 California election, voters turned to an alternative source of information--candidate …