The 2012 top-two primary indicated that Democrat Ami Bera was in trouble. He won anyway.
On June 3, California will hold its second ever-statewide top-two primary. All candidates will run on one ballot: The two candidates with the most votes advance to November regardless of party. The Golden State will host a number of competitive general elections for Congress and the state legislature, and the June primary gives voters their first chance to choose between the parties. It can be very tempting to look at the results of the top-two for clues on how the general election will unfold.
In 2012, several pundits did just that. It was widely understood at the time that the June primary electorate was whiter and more conservative than it would be in November. Still, the primary results looked troubling for Democrats. In the competitive suburban Sacramento Seventh District, Democrat Ami Bera trailed Republican Rep. Dan Lungren by a large 53 to 41 margin. In the Palm Springs area 36th District, Democrat Raul Ruiz lagged behind Republican Rep. Mary Bono Mack 58 to 42. Perhaps worst of all was in the nearby 41st District, which until then was widely considered a likely Democratic pickup: Democrat Mark Takano trailed Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione 45 to 37. When minor Democratic and Republican candidates were included, Team Red held a nine-point lead over all the Democrats. Even factoring in bluer general election turnout, it looked like Democrats were in danger of forfeiting three critical seats.
As it turned out, the top-two didn't predict much. Bera, Ruiz, and Takano each won their seats: Takano notably turned the nine point primary deficit into an 18-point win. In all but one competitive House and state legislative seat Democrats improved their vote share from November, usually by at least 10 points. Still, it's a good bet that after California holds its June 3 top-two primary, the results will get spun. Republicans and some pundits will crow that GOP candidates held Democrats under fifty percent, or that they outpolled them by double digits and treat this like a harbinger for November. But if 2012 is any indication, the top-two results represent essentially the bare-minimum for what Democrats should expect to get in the general. Unfortunately, they don't tell us much about November beyond that.
Head below the fold for more.
Below is a look at the competitive House seats from 2012. To separate the competitive races from the ones that were safe for one party (and turnout was far less of an issue) I used a few criteria. To start with, I only included races where one Democrat and one Republican were on the general election ballot. I also included any race where one of the two candidates took at least 45 percent in the general, races that Daily Kos Elections ranked as anything but safe in their final House ratings, and races where the party that got more combined votes in June lost in November.
In all but one of these races, the Democratic performance in November was notably better than it was in June. The one exception is in the Central Valley-based 21st District, where local Democrats were stuck with the very weak John Hernandez
as their nominee. Of the remaining districts, Democrats saw their smallest increase in the San Diego area 52nd District (though this didn't stop Democrat Scott Peters from unseating Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray). The largest increase was a nearly 31-point Democratic surge in the 25th, where Democrat Lee Rogers did unexpectedly well against Rep. Buck McKeon.
Based on Democratic improvement from June to November, the median district was in the coastal 47th District, where Democrats did 14.5 percent better in November than in June. The largest gap between Democrats and Republicans in June that Team Blue successfully overcame was in the 36th District, where Raul Ruiz turned a 16 point primary loss into a nearly 6 point general election win. The smallest primary gap that still resulted in a Democratic general election loss was in CA-21, home of the aforementioned John Hernandez.
Below is a chart of California's competitive legislative races. As before, I included a seat if one candidate from each party took at least 45 percent in the general or if the party with more votes in June lost in November (Daily Kos Elections did not rate legislative races).
There was also a massive range on how much Democrats improved from June to November. The smallest improvement was in Senate District 27, and the largest was in Assembly District 36 north of Los Angeles. The median district was in the Central Valley's Senate District 5, where Democrats improved 19.6 percent from June to November. The largest primary gap that still led to a Democratic win in November was AD-36, where Steve Fox reversed a 34 point deficit and pulled off a shocking narrow win. The smallest primary gap that did not result in a Democratic November victory was in AD-44 where Republican Assemblyman Jeff Gorrell (who is now running for Congress in CA-26) defeated an underfunded Democrat in a swing district.
It's difficult to understand why the Democratic general election increase was so much larger in some districts than it was in others. There are several possible factors to consider. To start with, there's the district's racial composition. The June primary electorate was far whiter than it was in November, and Democrats had a lot of room to grow in districts with significant minority populations.
It's also possible that one party could have turned out disproportionately in the primary if it wasn't clear which of their candidates would be in the general. For instance, in CA-52 there was a fierce contest between former Assemblymember Lori Saldana and Scott Peters to take on Brian Bilbray. Many Democrats who would have normally stayed home in June could have turned out to back Saldana or Peters. Of all the competitive House and legislative seats, CA-52 showed the smallest Democratic increase (aside from CA-21). Some other reasons that could account for why turnout surged more in some districts than others are presence of viable independent candidates in June, proportion of voters who vote by mail, individual candidates' strengths and weaknesses, and others.
However, it's tough to predict, even in retrospect, where turnout would increase from June to November of 2012. The sample size is too small, we have only one election's worth of data, and there are so many overlapping factors to sort out that it's difficult to pick up a pattern. We can usually assume that there will be some Democratic increase, assuming Team Blue does not run a disastrous candidate: However, when it can be anywhere from less than 5 percent to 34 percent we can't make any real conclusions about November at this point. It's also pretty likely that, because midterm general electorates tend to be whiter and more conservative than presidential voters, Democrats will see a smaller increase from June to November of 2014 than they did in 2012.
So what can we take from all this?
Probably the one thing we can count on is Democrats being very likely to win if the combined Democratic primary vote is at least 50 percent. Still, given that we only have one cycle's worth of experience with the top-two (and unexpected events can always happen during the general), no Democrat in a competitive seat should start measuring the drapes if the primary goes well.
The most important thing to understand at this stage is how little the primary will tell us about November. The district's partisan composition, past electoral history, candidate fundraising, and outside spending are all better indicators of what seats are competitive and which ones aren't than the June top-two results. It's tempting to view the primary as a preview of the general, but 2012 shows us we should resist that temptation.