California primary: First step toward recasting American politics?

California held its first open, nonpartisan primary Tuesday. Low turnout notwithstanding, the results suggest that the new format boosted moderate candidates. 

By , Staff writer

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    Sadie Summer O'Neal puts an "I Voted" sticker on her nose as her grandmother, Kathleen Rogers, votes in Placentia, Calif., Tuesday.
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California's pioneering attempt to produce more moderate candidates by tinkering with its primary system appears to have had some success Tuesday.

Tuesday's primary marked the state's first open, nonpartisan primary for statewide and congressional offices. All voters of could vote for any candidate, regardless of the political party of the voter or candidate, and the top-two vote-getters advanced to the general election, again regardless of party.

The hope is that this system would recast the primary process, which typically forces candidates to move to the left or right in order to win voters. 

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Historically low turnout of 15 percent – the lowest ever in the state for a presidential primary – makes it hard to draw definitive conclusions from the Tuesday vote. But one survey of the results suggests the system shows promise.

“The new, top two ballot used in California’s primary election appears to give moderate candidates in state races a 6-7 percent boost compared to the traditional, more restricted ballot,” concludes the report by the Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS) at the University of California, Berkeley. 

“It looks like voters want to vote for more moderate candidates and will do so if the ballot provides the opportunity,” said Gabriel Lenz, a UC Berkeley political scientist who led the survey for IGS.

Other analysts are more enthusiastic. 

“This election is a turning point,” says David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University. “This is a portent of things to come nationally."

He says that it will take a few election cycles for the evidence of moderation to prove true – and for voters to get used to the new, longer ballots. But he and others agree that the new system points in the direction where American voters are headed. A growing share of Americans is registering as independent, and California's top-two primary allows such voters to be more engaged in the political process.   

Now at 21 percent – compared with 43 percent for Democrats and 30 percent for Republicans – " 'decline to state' has been the state’s fastest growing party for some time, as the electorate is increasingly frustrated with the inability of both their state and federal representatives to get the business of governing done,” says Michael Shires, professor of public policy at Pepperdine University.

He notes that with the exception of a few competitive districts in the state, candidates before now simply had to run to the right or left to get the nomination in the primary and then coast through the general election.

“Now they will have to reach out to broader constituencies in both the primary and general elections,” he says.

For example, moderate incumbent Rep. Jim Costa (D), "would have barely eked out a win" under the old primary system, according to Doug Ahler, a UC Berkeley grad student who worked on the IGS survey. Instead, he won handily, and his liberal challenger from the left also finished behind the most moderate Republican, setting up a general election between two centrists. 

"We think this is a good example of the top-two ballot doing what it was intended to do," says Mr. Ahler.

Tuesday's results suggest this same result can come in different ways. Twenty-term incumbent Rep. Pete Stark (D) could get a stern challenge from his general election opponent, Eric Swalwell, a Dublin, Calif., city councilman who is also a Democrat. 

“This race is the poster child for moderation,” says Professor McCuan. “Move to the middle or lose.”

In the long term, results could be Republicans more appealing to the state’s growing Hispanic population, as well as more pro-business Democrats. 

“That seems to be happening in a few cases,” says Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

But the primary has also "led to more party on party violence than we might have expected,” notes McCuan. 

That might have an impact on Democrats' hopes of picking up House seats in the fall. His prediction: “If Democrats expected to pick up five additional House seats in California in order to return Speaker Pelosi to power, that number is probably too high.”

Others, however, caution against drawing too many conclusions from the primary.   

“Turnout was so low that the data isn’t rich enough to make comprehensive conclusions," says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. "We’ll know more in the fall.” 

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