As a service to our readers – Motto: “We do this stuff so you don’t have to.” — Calbuzz dropped in last week at a seminar put on by the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley asking the topical question: “California’s Top Two Primary – Will It Make a Difference?”
The “difference” sought by supporters of the measure – which included most of the business interests in California along with a host of reform-minded civic groups – was to reduce partisan gridlock by boosting the number of politically moderate (i.e. business-friendly) members of the Legislature and Congress.
It was part of a “perfect storm of reform” – a three-part attack on partisanship, the other parts being citizens’ reapportionment and modified term limits. Because all three “reforms” kicked in — and because centrist Gov. Jerry Brown was elected — all about the same time, it’s difficult for political scientists to separate out the effect of any one “reform.”
Moreover, there are no easily available measures of the impact of the top-two system: Do you look at legislative outcomes before and after? At candidates’ ratings from interests groups? At some manufactured index to measure ideology? Participation by independents (or No Party Preference (NPP) voters as they’re now called)?
What eggheads said: The academic panelists were of two minds: Douglas Ahler of Berkeley, Thad Kousser of UC San Diego and Eric McGhee of Public Policy Institute of California basically said the law has had no measurable effect. Christian Grose of USC and Andy Sinclair of Claremont said it might have had a slight moderating effect on the system.
After listening to their presentations, Calbuzz proposed a conclusion with which the chrome-dome panel pretty much agreed: That if the top-two system has had any measurable effect (and we can’t be sure because of the competing variables), it’s been to move the elected Democrats to the right without moving the elected Republicans to the left.
Which is exactly what the economic elites who backed the system want – to moderate the Democratic left.
As for engaging NPP voters, the top-two system has yet to prove itself. That may well be because independents are not used to being able to vote in “primary” elections. So while they may constitute nearly a third of the registered voters statewide, in a June election only about 12% of the electorate can be expected to be NPP voters, according to pollster Ben Tulchin, one of the consultant panelists at IGS.
Or as Democratic consultant Katie Merrill put it: “NPPs aren’t players in the primary.” You can’t just change the rules and expect people to act differently if they’re not aware that the rules have changed, noted Ahler, a PhD candidate from Berkeley.
Moreover, depending on the number of candidates from either party and how much money any individual candidate can raise and spend, partisan primary voters (those registered as a Democrat or Republican) are not really open to crossover voting, said Tulchin.
As a result, argued UCSD’s Kousser, Democrats in the Legislature were ideologically about the same in 2012 compared to 2010, but Republicans were more conservative and less dispersed. However, the California Chamber of Commerce agenda won more support in the Legislature after the top-two primary than before.
Ruben Barrales, president of GROW elect, which seeks out and promotes ethnic Republicans in local elections, argued that the top-two system and other reforms were supported in part by Republicans and business forces who hoped to see more business-friendly Democrats elected throughout the state. GOP consultant Julie Griffiths, also on the panel, did not disagree.
Schnur needs really big bucks fast: In a statewide election, like the governor’s race, polls seem to bear out the feeble effect of the top-two system thus far. In that race, for example, polling suggests that Democratic Gov. Brown is likely to face off against hard-right favorite Republican Tim Donnelly. At the moment, at least, moderate Republican Neel Kashkari (with his decidedly non-Anglo Saxon name), is running far behind Donnelly and is even bested by registered sex offender Glenn Champ.
In the Secretary of State’s race, Republican Pete Peterson is ahead of Democrat Alex Padilla while NPP candidate Dan Schnur trails even the Green Party’s David Curtis. Asked how much money an NPP like Schnur would have to raise and spend to get into the top-two run-off election, Merrill estimated $5 million and Tulchin guessed $10-15 million – none of which is likely.
The biggest effect thus far, according to Tulchin, is that in making election strategies vastly more complicated and customized, the top-two system as been “good for the business of political consultants and pollsters.”
And aren’t we glad about that?