Golden Gate Bridge—San Francisco, CA (Photo by elfling)
Last Sunday, in advance of the June 6th primary elections, I posed three questions
about Tuesday's California primaries.
The genesis of the piece was born in the new "top two" primary elections format that made its debut five days ago in the Golden State, which had aroused a fair amount of attention and scrutiny in the political arena in the run-up to the actual balloting.
Now that we have some actual data to deal with, what do we know now about the process? The elections created intrigue, to be sure, but also had some glaring flaws which were quickly exposed on Tuesday night.
Before we get to that glaring (but not totally unforeseen) circumstance, let's recap those three questions posed last week, and take a minute to analyze those questions. But first, a caveat—in a state as big as California, there are still loads of ballots to count, and some of the things that are being described here as foregone conclusions just might not be, when all is said and done.
Now, about those questions:
1. Will the new system embolden independent candidates, or kill them off?
The answer: By and large, kill them off.
Before this "top two" system was put in place, third-party candidates could participate in the general election, and could play a pivotal role in the outcome of the November elections, especially in races or districts that are closely contested.
Now, the only way for a third-party or independent candidate to be relevant is to crack that top two. Currently, four golden tickets to November were punched by a candidate who was neither a Republican nor a Democrat. Three candidates aren't even worth mentioning, because they are running in uber-blue or uber-red districts. Those are the kind of districts where the incumbents are often unopposed, anyway.
Only one candidate has the capacity to make things even marginally interesting. That candidate is little-known, but very well-heeled, independent candidate Bill Bloomfield in CA-33. Bloomfield is the wealthy owner of a real estate firm who dumped over $1.1 million in self contributions to his campaign, and earned 26 percent of the vote on primary day. He had several things working in his favor, however, that were somewhat unique to his case. For one, the aforementioned seven-figure bit of personal assistance is not something that many candidates are going to be able to swing. Another key factor: The blue-tinted district had a Republican Some Dude, which allowed Bloomfield to play up his fiscally conservative street cred to pick off Republicans that never heard from their party's lone candidate in the field, in addition to swing voters who might've been attracted to Bloomfield's "throw out the bums" message. Don't get me wrong, he'll be lucky to crack 40 percent in a district which has a distinct blue tint. But his money makes him at least worth watching.
However, three higher-profile (but lesser-funded) indie candidates failed to crack the top two. In two of those cases, Congressional candidates Chad Condit (CA-10) and Linda Parks (CA-26) had the advantage of some name recognition, but failed to crack the 20 percent barrier. The third indie, Nathan Fletcher (San Diego Mayor), was a former GOP state legislator whose candidacy was hyped to the moon and back. In the end, enough Democrats stuck with Rep. Bob Filner, and enough Republicans stuck with Carl DeMaio, to relegate Fletcher to third-place status, albeit with 24 percent of the vote.
However, in fairness, that doesn't render those candidates powerless. Whether via official endorsement or not, the candidates that survived Tuesday will have to romance Fletcher, Parks, or Condit supporters, in particular the Democratic candidates, all of whom came in second place in round one.
2. Will June be a predictor for November in key races?
I won't belabor this point, because I already did it earlier this week in response to a piece by WaPo's Aaron Blake.
The short answer is: Almost certainly not. Turnout was pretty darned weak (it currently sits at 24 percent of registered voters, whereas turnout in 2010 was 33 percent, and turnout in 2008 was 28 percent. Furthermore, it was a skewed sample—51 percent of voters drew a Democratic presidential primary ballot (the only contest which, by rule, had to be restricted to one-party primary rules). 47 percent cast ballots in the GOP primary. Absolutely no one, in either party, thinks that will be the composition of the electorate in November.
3. Will this new system inadvertently screw Democrats?
Heh. This is where that big, but not totally unforeseen, flaw in this system comes to the fore. However, when I posed this question last Sunday, I looked at this purely from a campaign finance perspective.
That will be a consideration, still. Democrats are going heads-up in a handful of districts, though only a few of those (CA-15, CA-30 and CA-44) are liable to be big money affairs.
Republicans, meanwhile, look like they will have two such contests. One was foreseen, to an extent: the high desert district in CA-08. In a wild, almost absurd multi candidate field, Republicans went 1-2-3. However, the gap between Republican frontrunner Paul Cook and fourth place Democrat Jackie Conaway was less than 1000 votes.
The second contest was, in its own way, more absurd than the first. In the newly drawn and marginally Democratic 31st district, Republicans accounted for 52 percent of the vote and Democrats accounted for 48 percent. And yet, there will in all probability be two Republicans on the ballot in November.
How did such a catastrophe occur? Because there were only two Republicans on the ballot (incumbent Rep. Gary Miller and state legislator Bob Dutton), and a quartet of Democrats. Because there was little real estate between the two Republicans, they scored at 27 percent and 25 percent, respectively. Even though Democrat Pete Aguilar actually got about half of the Democratic vote, the three remaining Democrats in the mix claimed the rest. This left Aguilar at 23 percent, and out of the running.
And herein lies an institutional problem with the "top two" structure, one which might actually counteract one of the stated goals of the new system. If one of the rationales for this system was to weaken the influence of political parties, it may have failed miserably. Because one has to assume now that parties in 2014 will be working double time to clear the decks for their preferred candidates in the filing process. Whether it is indirect "take one for the team pressure," or a raft of party assistance being dropped in the laps of the favored horses in the field, one has to guess that the sting of losing a winnable district will compel the Democrats (and the GOP, if they were paying close attention) to interfere more in the primary process, not less.
It will be interesting to see what, if anything, might be done to rectify this particular malady. The nightmare scenario of both parties running "fake" candidates of the opposite party, in an effort to enlard the ballot and split votes, seems to demand some kind of a fix. That fix could still work within the confines of the "open" primary structure—it could simply be the top two candidates, but moving on to the third candidate in the queue if the top two came from the same party, for example. Whether it will happen or not is an open question, but you can bet after the debacle in the 31st, people in party headquarters are going to be talking about it.