‘Jungle Primary’ Postmortem. Part 1: Congress

The June 5th primary was California’s first statewide experience with the top-two ‘jungle’ primary in which all candidates appear on the same ballot and the top two, regardless of party designation, Appear on the November ballot.

Proponents of the measure saw it as a way of giving more power to moderate and decline-to-state voters.  Some detractors felt that it would give more importance to back-room politics as the political parties would make sure that fewer candidates run as to not split the votes of their base.  Other detractors complained that there could be cases where the Fall ballot would contain no representative of one of the two major parties.

So were those goals, or worries, realized?  Looking at California’s 53 congressional districts the answer is mixed.

The Pointless

Eight districts had two or fewer candidates on the ballot.  When the top two are going onto the fall ballot, having only two choices seems like a waste of a perfectly good ink.  This is especially true in the 37th Congressional District, where Karen Bass was the only name on the ballot at all.  Moreover in the 40th, 43rd, and 44th congressional district both of the two names on the ballot were from the same party!  It makes it a little hard to listen to one party complain that they have no representative on the November ballot if they didn’t even try to put somebody there!

That is perhaps the biggest difference between current partisan politics and that of a couple of decades ago.  Back then the parties parties would have recruited a conservative Democrat or a liberal Republican to run and possibly even win in those districts.  They might have seemed to be an odd duck aside their compatriots, but it was better than not fighting for a district at all.  Now there is much more focus on only supporting ‘real’ Republicans and ‘real’ Democrats based on a single national agenda, labeling places red or blue, and surrendering the others.

The Single-Party Elections

There are two districts that will feature two Republican candidates in November and seven that will feature two Democrats.  That includes the one uncontested race in the 37th and five districts where there were no Republicans on the ballot at all.  Of the others:

  • The 8th district had ten Republicans, two Democrats, and one No Political Party. The two Democrats together only received 24.4% of the vote, so one could convincingly argue that the choice between the more conservative and the more moderate Republican is the choice that the voters wanted.  In some ways this could actually be considered good for the Democrats.  They may have had zero chance of electing a Democrat but they could be the deciding factor in the more moderate Republicans being elected in November.  Under the old system, the Democrats would potentially be faced with the choice of the sure-to-lose Democrat or the more conservative Republican.
  • The 30th district had a similar story to the 8th.  The three Democrats shared 75.6% of the vote while the three Republicans had only 22.4% and the one Green Party Member 2%.  The two leading Democrats were only ten percent apart.  So in the same way this also may be good for the Republicans. They would have had zero chance of electing a Republican, but now can play a role in the more moderate Democrat winning.
  • The 31st district is perhaps the best example of what the opponents of the top-two system were thinking of.  There were four Democrats and two Republicans.  The four Democrats together had 48.4% of the vote and the two Republicans had 51.6%.  Democratic party leaders might well be frustrated at having very close to half of the vote for their candidates yet no name on the ballot from their party.  For the Democratic voters themselves, they can expect a lot of attention as they are the swing votes in this election..

The Independents

In three districts the second place finisher was listed as belonging to No Political Party.  This can be seen as something of a victory since under prior rules there was no particular way a no-political-party candidate had a route to the ballot at all.  Looking more closely though, a different picture emerges:

  • In the  23rd district the ballot contained two Republicans and one No Political Party. The Republican winner had 71.8% of the vote.
  • In the 29th district the ballot contained two Democrats and one No Political Party, with the Democratic winner getting 64.4% of the vote
  • The 33rd district was an eight-way race with four Democrats and one each of Republican, Green, Libertarian and No Political Party.  The winning Democrat had 45.5% of the vote,  The Republican had only 15.3% of the vote and the No Political Party candidate got 24.3% of the vote.

So rather than some sudden power of  the independent voter, it seems that certain districts are so strong for one party that it’s better to be undefined than a confirmed member of the opposing party.

The Noncompetitive and Competitive 

In 35 of the 53 congressional seats, the top finisher received more than half of the vote.  This includes the two-candidate districts and the one single-candidate district, where the winner of the primary likely has clear sailing to November.  Of the remaining 18 districts, five candidates had such a clear lead that the second and third place finishers combined do not match them.  They too can be considered to have an easy campaign ahead.  Of the remaining 13 districts, five will have two Republicans or two Democrats.  In those districts, the party affiliation of the winner may not be in doubt, but they may well go to the more centrist candidate of that party.

One of the remaining eight races, the 32nd, was a 3 person race where the 1st and 3rd place candidates were from the same party, making it unlikely to be close in November.  The 7th and 41st were crowded races where the Republicans combined had more than enough votes to make it seem to be a safe race.  The remaining 5 races are:

  • The 47th, where the winning Democrat and four others had a combined 48.9% of the vote and the 2nd place Republican and three others had a combined 50.4%.
  • The 24th, where the incumbent Democrat had 46.5% of the vote but the two Republicans combined for 51.2% and a single No Polical Party candidate scored 2.4%.
  • The 52nd, where the Republican incumbent and 4 others scored a combined 49.0% and the 3 Democrats a combined 46.2% plus two No Political Party candidates sharing 4.9%
  • The 9th, a 3-way ballot where the incumbent Democrat got 48.4% of the vote but the two Republicans shared 51.6%
  • The 26th, where the No Political party candidate put up a strong 3rd place showing of 18% while the Republican winner had 44.2% and the Democratic 2nd place finisher and three others had a combined 37.3%

Having five close races out of 53 congressional districts may not seem like much, but it is more than in previous years.  However it may be mostly a matter of redistricting by commission rather than by the legislature.

In general, the results from California’s first statewide top-two primary are a mixed bag.  The number of races with only one or two names on the ballot is disappointing, but there are some interesting races.  Contrary to the fears, the races with two Republican or two Democrats on the ballot are actually those in which it may have the most effect on the ideological bent of the California Congressional delegation.  There will be some Republicans from Republican districts that feel that they can’t ignore the Democrats in their district and some Democrats from Democratic districts that feel that they can’t ignore the Republicans in their district.  In those areas, the mission was accomplished.

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