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Dissecting a ‘no party preference’ campaign in California

The June primary generated little interest or enthusiasm at the statewide level, save for the campaigns for controller and secretary of state. The outcome of the controller’s race turned out to be decided by a handful of votes, as some had expected it would. During the primary for secretary of state, many insiders were keeping an eye on the independent, or “no party preference,” campaign of Dan Schnur.

To run for office, Schnur took leave from his position as the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. He is also an adjunct member of the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley. But his involvement in California politics and policy goes back decades. He recently served as the chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission and was the chief media spokesman for Gov. Pete Wilson, as well as campaign adviser to Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, John McCain and Peter Ueberroth. He is a frequently quoted expert on California politics, appears often on television and writes opinion pieces for the state’s and nation’s major newspapers.

Schnur finished fourth in a field of eight, with just over 9 percent of the vote. As well-known as he is to political insiders, he started the race unknown to California voters. Public polling in the spring had him starting the campaign at 4 percent. Never having held public office, he entered the race with an empty campaign bank account, but by the time it was over he had raised an impressive amount for a non-officeholder – more than $500,000.

We advised Schnur’s campaign. One of us (Stutzman, a Republican) has worked in California campaigns the past 22 years and ran communications for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, had been a colleague and friend of Schnur’s since the 1990s. The other (Sragow, a Democrat) has managed five statewide campaigns and served as the campaign strategist for the Assembly Democratic Caucus. Sragow and Schnur have been academic colleagues since 1999, for the last decade at USC.

We answered questions about the campaign for Schnur:

How did the campaign look in the beginning?

Sragow: When Dan first told me that he was considering an independent run for secretary of state, I was intrigued. We’ve been colleagues since 1999. He’s smart, creative, honest, and he’s spent much of his life in the world of politics. So, I knew he would be a good candidate.

He planned to have two advisers, one Democratic and one Republican, and his choice for the Republican, Rob Stutzman, is also a friend. I was confident that the three of us would work well together. For me, this was a chance to help a friend and to continue my pursuit of ways that we can provide more good choices to voters.

The key questions revolved around viability. Could a “no party preference” candidate make it to the November general election in California’s recently adopted top-two primary system? So, we ran a poll, and we assessed Dan’s ability to raise money. And the answer was a clear yes, if ...

Stutzman: Polling confirmed what we suspected. With a funded campaign that could communicate with voters, he had the ability to get 20 to 25 percent of June votes. Because that was the ceiling, it was critical that there be multiple candidates in the race from each of the two major parties in order to spread hardcore partisan voters across multiple candidates so that Dan could finish in the top two.

Why didn’t that happen?

Sragow: Dan didn’t make it into the general election for three fundamental reasons, two of them structural and one of them systemic.

First, as political insiders are now realizing, our new top-two primary has at least one unintended consequence: The outcome depends heavily on how many viable candidates are competing for Democratic votes and Republican votes. To Dan’s disadvantage, ultimately there was only one viable Democrat and one viable Republican, so the major party votes weren’t divided into small pieces.

Second, the voters who are more likely to vote for an independent are less likely to vote in a June primary, and turnout this spring was brutally low.

Third, and this is something familiar to California political consultants, at the beginning of a campaign most voters know nothing, or close to it, about the candidates. So, a campaign needs money to buy sufficient advertising, and, failing that, a campaign needs to use shorthand to provide voters with clues. That’s where party affiliation and ballot title become important.

Stutzman: I, of course, agree with all of that assessment. My summation is that a good “no party preference” candidate like Dan is greatly aided by a June turnout that is about twice what occurred this year. Our poll didn’t take into account turnout as low as it was. Until voters participate in primaries in greater numbers, I’m skeptical of the path for an independent.

One other observation is that while Dan has been quoted regularly in the media for about 25 years, that really didn’t create a name ID for him. I also don’t think that the excellent news coverage Dan received when he entered the race had any residual aid for his candidacy. This is bad news, most of all, for newspapers.

What did you make of Sen. Leland Yee’s arrest and indictment after he was already on the ballot?

Sragow: In any normal state, say Indiana or Washington, where I’ve managed campaigns, Sen. Yee’s trouble would have been big news. The candidates would have talked about it. Voters would have known about it. But in California, voter information about our legislators, both state and in the House and about down-ticket constitutional officers, is essentially nonexistent.

All through the campaign, most voters had no idea who Leland Yee was or that he is in legal trouble. And none of the other candidates was going to raise the issue because they needed to focus their limited resources on, as we say in the business, communicating their positives. The person who presumably stood the most to gain from beating up on Yee was his main Democratic opponent, Sen. Alex Padilla. As near as I can tell, the Padilla campaign’s paid-media consisted largely of a very nice, positive biography on Los Angeles television.

Stutzman: Dan constantly challenged the Senate to expel Yee, but the media largely ignored that. But as I observed earlier, it really didn’t matter. Yee is an exhibit of how California is too big for any down-ballot candidate to become familiar to voters absent millions of dollars being spent … which our laws make nearly impossible for a candidate to raise.

What is your takeaway from the Schnur campaign? Can an independent win statewide office in California?

Stutzman: I think an independent can win in a general election, but it’s extremely difficult to advance through the top-two primary. Each race’s dynamics is contingent upon the size of the field. As previously noted, if there had been several Republicans and a few more Democrats, then a lone independent’s odds increase.

However, I don’t believe the fundamentals of who votes in June give an independent enough headroom to likely succeed. About half of “no party preference” voters sit out in June, ironically bestowing more power on the extremely partisan voters who do vote in primaries. There are always exceptional scenarios that could emerge, but until the turnout mix radically changes, or an independent can expend more than $10 million, I will remain skeptical about where an indie finds the votes in a primary.

Sragow: I look at the poll we did, and I look at the results of a lot of other opinion research I have seen that bears on this question, and I am absolutely, 100 percent certain that unaligned candidates can win in California and nationally. There is strong interest in, I would say a hunger for, something different, especially among younger voters and among Republicans caught in the crossfire between the tea party and GOP moderates.

I think there is a sufficient pool of voters who are window shopping, or browsing the Internet in today’s terms, for more choices in the political marketplace.

But state election laws are heavily stacked against independents and third parties throughout the country. Even if that were not so, the Democratic and Republican brands are, if not terribly popular, very familiar, very strong. The messaging to break that stranglehold will require an incredible amount of money and a candidate or set of circumstances that transcends understandable voter anxiety about choosing the unfamiliar.

Is the top-two primary a force for good or a force for evil?

Stutzman: I’m a fan in general of the top-two primary. I think it invokes a level of accountability for legislative and congressional incumbents that never existed in the past. Politicians in “safe” seats have to always be conscious of ending up in an intraparty general election where they could be ousted, and that should force them to pay attention to all constituent groups in their district. That’s a good thing.

When it comes to statewide races, it effectively adds more dice in the dice cup – more variables of chance in what was already a difficult game to calculate.

Sragow: When this was first proposed, I was uncertain whether this new process would be a good thing or a bad thing, but I was very certain it would change the rules of engagement in primaries. The law of unintended consequences is alive and well, and I think the results so far have been mixed. It has been a boon for consultants because there are a lot more campaigns; a curse for voters whose mailboxes were jammed as Election Day approached.

The real point is that voters want change in government and the political system; they’re not getting it, so they take matters into their own hands and approve ballot measures imposing term limits and nonpartisan redistricting and creating the jungle primary.

But from the perspective of many, things continue to get worse, not better, and that is precisely why I believe that the day for non-Democratic, non-Republican candidacies, whether independent or third party, will come.