California Forum

California has a new question: Who’s Number Two?

Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, chats with constituents during a campaign stop in San Francisco as he tries to edge Republican John Cox out for the second of two slots on the general election ballot.
Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, chats with constituents during a campaign stop in San Francisco as he tries to edge Republican John Cox out for the second of two slots on the general election ballot. AP

Be first if you like. But in California, it’s better to be second best.

This is the larger truth at work in the Golden State’s June 5 elections. Because, the top two finishers in each race advance to the November runoff election, almost all campaigning and TV ads are designed to put a particular candidate in second place.

Of course, when you’re choosing a candidate for political office, you want the best. But California’s top two system incentivizes people to select their second choice.

This fixation with finishing second isn’t limited to our elections: Californians highly value second place in civics, arts, and technology.

Take Silicon Valley. Our tech industry used to run on the idea of the “first mover advantage” – the belief that whatever startup moved first into a space was likely to win. But now “first mover advantage” is considered a myth. The evidence suggests that you’d rather be second in pursuing an idea – “a fast follower” – if you want your technology to succeed in the marketplace.

Ryan Holmes, founder and CEO of Hootsuite, noted on Medium that Microsoft came up with a tablet a decade before the more successful iPad debuted, and that Snapchat pioneered disappearing images and other features, only to see Facebook co-opt its ideas.

“Ultimately … it’s not who’s first to market but who’s best to market,” wrote Holmes. “As a second-mover, you benefit by having a clear, real target in your sights …. First-movers, by contrast, are forced to drive looking in the rear-view mirror.”

Being first is also no guarantee of reputational advantages. Uber, the ride-sharing leader, is widely reviled, while Lyft, in second place, is celebrated. Fly-by-night news sites may get information up first, but you can better trust publications that do a better story later. Note that, to save money, California’s most distinguished newspaper, the L.A. Times, is moving from a first-rate downtown location to a smaller city named El Segundo (literally “The Second,” a nod to the city’s history as site of Standard Oil’s second big California refinery).

Being second also makes you less of a target. The paparazzi go easier on second-tier star Keanu Reeves than on Tom Cruise. And there is greater cachet in being second banana. Keith Richards is cooler than Mick Jagger. And while people love to hate California’s biggest city, Los Angeles, who doesn’t love to love our state’s second most populous municipality, San Diego?

As a whole, California – while maintaining that it’s a global leader – is actually No. 2 in important measures. We’re the second most diverse state (behind Hawai’i) and have the second-strongest economy (by one study, behind Washington). On the down side, we’re second in number of people per house (behind Utah) – a reflection of our housing shortage.

In many things, being second is worth celebrating. The city of Stockton is happy – after surviving municipal bankruptcy – to be ranked the second-most fiscally solvent city in America in a new study (it has a significant budget surplus). And California, according to consulting firm McKinsey, has the second lowest smoking and prisoner recidivism rates in the country.

Of course, when you’re choosing a candidate for political office, you want the best. But California’s top two system incentivizes people to select their second choice.

Say you’re a Democrat who wants your party to win back the U.S. House of Representatives and serve as a check on President Trump. If Gavin Newsom is your first choice for governor in this month’s election, you might be better off voting for a different Democrat – Antonio Villaraigosa – so that he can finish second in the June election. That way, two Democrats would advance to the November election in the top two, lowering Republican turnout and making it harder for California’s Republican members of Congress to hold on to their seats.

Vote for your top preference, and your party is probably less well-off.

Frustrating, yes. But this is how decision-making works in a state so willing to settle for second best.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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