Capitol Alert

New research offers four lessons from California’s top-two primary

Kaitlin Hubber, an election clerk, looks at an absentee ballot at the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters office in 2012.
Kaitlin Hubber, an election clerk, looks at an absentee ballot at the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters office in 2012. Sacramento Bee file

What difference did California’s top-two electoral system make in statewide contests in 2014?

On the outcome, not much.

But the system, in which the top two vote-getters in each race advance from the primary election to a runoff regardless of party affiliation, did influence the field of candidates who got into races and some of the tactics they employed, according to research published Sunday in the California Journal of Politics and Policy.

And in down-ticket races, the new system may have even affected how we use Google.

Here are four lessons from California’s experience with the top-two:

▪ Though concluding that the top-two primary “did not, in the end, discernibly alter the outcomes of the 2014 primaries,” Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, finds the system helped shape the field of candidates in some races.

Dan Schnur, an independent candidate for secretary of state, told Kousser he would not have run were it not for the top-two system, believing that under the old rules “we wouldn’t have had any chance.”

Derek Cressman, a Democrat who also ran for secretary of state, told Kousser he “was nearly discouraged from entering by the new rules.” He feared the Democratic Party, in an effort to avoid vote-splitting among Democrats, might try to squelch his campaign. But he said he got “zero pressure from the Democratic Party to drop out.”

Neither candidate advanced to the general election.

▪ In the controller’s race, where an unexpected surge by an unknown Republican named David Evans nearly left Democrats without a candidate in the November runoff, Kousser wrote “the quirks of the top-two structure and a crowded field on the left side of the ideological spectrum … nearly yielded a Democratic – and, arguably, a small ‘d’ democratic – disaster.’”

He said the race demonstrated that “partisans must find some way to coordinate before the primary, or risk dividing up their support across too many candidates and failing to get any of them through to the general election.”

▪ While proponents of the top-two primary system have said the system could help decrease political polarization and improve the prospects of more moderate candidates, a review of congressional contests in 2012 suggests the top-two system largely failed to achieve that goal.

One reason, according to researchers at UC Berkeley, is that people didn’t know much about where candidates fell on the ideological spectrum.

According to the study, “voters held fuzzy beliefs about candidate ideology that came nowhere close to the knowledge necessary for identifying the moderate candidates reformers presumed would be favored.”

▪ And all that ignorance is despite our ability to use Google.

Analyzing public “Google Trends” data for California state legislators from June 2010 to February 2013, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found lawmakers facing challenges from members of their own party in a runoff election were associated with a 13 percent to 15 percent increase in searches ahead of the election.

The study’s authors found that when confronted with a choice between two candidates of the same party – and lacking the distinction that a partisan label affords – “many California residents subsequently searched online for additional information.”

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.