California’s Top-Two Primary, by Andrew Sinclair
After 2020’s “Super Tuesday,” many of the news headlines in California (and the rest of the nation) will focus on the outcome of the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination contests. Yet, there are other elections taking place in California at the same time, continuing California’s experiment with the “top-two primary.”
There are actually three types of elections taking place in California. The presidential contest is a traditional partisan primary. Unaffiliated (“no party preference”) voters can participate in the Democratic Party primary if they request a Democratic ballot. Still, the election is partisan in nature: it helps determine which candidate will be the party’s nominee for the November general election. The other two kinds of elections are both variants of nonpartisan elections.
California uses the nonpartisan top-two election procedure for “voter-nominated offices.” This year, these are the State Assembly, State Senate, and U.S. House elections (there are no statewide office or U.S. Senate elections this year). For these elections, every voter can choose between all of the candidates. The two candidates with the most votes advance to the general election in November, even if they come from the same party. Candidates for these offices list their party preference on the ballot. For a short explainer on how this works, Christian Grose (USC) has a great 4-minute description in an interview with NPR: here.
California also holds elections for “nonpartisan offices.” This can be a bit confusing, since the top-two for the voter-nominated offices also is a kind of nonpartisan election – but for these elections (county supervisor, etc.), the candidates also do not list their own party preference on the ballot and, if one candidate gets more than 50% in the primary, that person is simply elected. Otherwise, these are pretty similar to the voter-nominated top-two elections.
California adopted the nonpartisan top-two procedure for voter-nominated offices by passing Proposition 14 in 2010. Michael Alvarez and I wrote a book – Nonpartisan Primary Election Reform: Mitigating Mischief (Cambridge University Press, 2015) – about the first use of the top-two in California in 2012. I have been following along since then as we have learned more in each cycle about how this rule operates.
The top-two procedure is different than what we see in most states, both in the primary and general election (Ian O’Grady and I make this argument in the Routledge Handbook of Primary Elections – which is a nice resource; the other chapters are great). For political scientists, the institutional variation the top-two represents provides an interesting window into primary elections, voter behavior more generally, and the operation of political parties. This post highlights a few things to look for in the 2020 cycle here in California.
Why 2020 is unique.
This will be the fifth cycle with the rules in California, although each election year has taken place in a unique context in terms of top-of-the-ticket races and the state of national politics. The 2020 election will be the first of this era to take place in March, with the Democratic Party’s nomination far from over. With all of the previous primaries in June, California had a more limited role in the 2012 and 2016 presidential primaries. It is also the first of the top-two elections to have no statewide elections (either statewide offices as in 2014 and 2018 or a U.S. Senate election as in 2012, 2016, and 2018).
It may be the case that Republicans, without a meaningful presidential contest or statewide election, will turn out at much lower rates than Democrats. Registered Republican voters make up only 24% of the state’s electorate (as of the Feb. 18 report from the Sec. of State). Since all candidates – Republicans and Democrats alike – are in the same primary for the voter-nominated offices, low turnout for one party can potentially make it hard for that party’s candidates to make it to the November ballot.
What to look for.
How many same-party general elections will there be? In past election cycles, it has still been the case that most primaries sent one Republican and one Democrat to the general election. If the Republican vote does collapse, it is possible that we may see more Democrat-on-Democrat general elections.
Where are the same-party elections? Following up on an observation in the Alvarez-Sinclair book, I (and coauthors Ian O’Grady, Brock McIntosh, and Carrie Nordlund) examined over a couple of cycles where these same-party elections tended to take place. The punchline: the more politically lopsided the district, the more likely it is to see two candidates of the same party advance to the general election. These can make the election a lot more competitive than they likely would be otherwise, too. Does that finding continue to hold?
How well do party-endorsed candidates do? One of the prevailing theories of primary elections is that parties generally do a pretty good job of organizing to back their preferred candidates (for a neat recent book on this, see Hans Hassell’s The Party’s Primary, among others).
What happens to races with crowded fields? In not every contest do the parties manage to keep the number of candidates of their own party down. While somewhat odd results do not happen very often, they can: nearly everyone cites the 2012 Miller-Dutton CD 31 race when they want an example in part because it illustrates a potential issue and in part because there are not many other examples. The idea is that the vote can split across candidates in such a way that the majority party could, if the cards fall exactly right, end up shut out of the general election.
How do moderate candidates do? This was, of course, one of the original claims about the top-two primary (for a nice summary from Eric McGhee at PPIC: here). As Nolan McCarty wrote in his recent book on polarization, results of studies on the impact of the primary reform on polarization are “decidedly mixed.” This is part of the fun of political science – as multiple scholars use different approaches to work towards an understanding of a problem. See work from Christian Grose (here) and Eric McGhee and Boris Shor (here).
Do any incumbents look to face stiff challenges in November? Beyond the question of ideological moderation, it may also be the case that voters can use the top-two to eject candidates from office who have performed poorly (potentially democratically meaningful, even if the replacement is ideologically similar).
What happens with third party/independent candidates? These candidacies have not generally been very successful under the top-two at reaching the general election (although, under the old partisan system, they were also not very successful at winning offices).
Are voters happy with their choices? In the surveys for our book, Michael Alvarez and I found that voters were fairly uncertain about what they expected from the top-two. As they experience it: do they learn about it, and get used to it? Or discover that they don’t like it?
Particular Races to Watch.
Congressional District 8. This used to be Paul Cook’s (R) district; in announcing his retirement, he set off one of the more interesting contests in this cycle. Republican Assemblyman Jay Obernolte won the Republican Party endorsement but there are five Republicans on the ballot in total, including a former candidate for Governor, Tim Donnelly. Yet there are also three Democrats and one NPP candidate on the ballot.
Congressional District 25. This is the Katie Hill seat – and it drew six Democrats, six Republicans, and one NPP candidate. The state Republican Party did not endorse a candidate and there are several potential contenders. The Democratic Party has not issued an endorsement in this race either. To further compound the story, there is a simultaneous special election to fill the remainder of the term.
There are others that will be pretty interesting, but those two are certainly worth checking in on as the returns come in. Of course, it may be quite some time before we really know what the results are for some tightly contested races.
What’s hard to see this week.
The top-two election procedure impacts both the primary and the general election. Some of the research on the top-two points towards finding the most interesting results in the general election. In the surveys Michael Alvarez and I conducted in 2012, we found that mostly voters tried to choose ideologically proximate candidates in the primary. (See also a nice study: Ahler, Citrin, and Lenz: here). But what happens once two candidates of the same party advance to the general election?
There is interesting work now (see Badas and Stauffer 2019) on gender and nonpartisan elections as well as race and ethnicity in same-party general elections under the top-two (see Sadhwani and Mendez 2018). If party is not a cue, voters have to decide somehow; Betsy Sinclair and Michael Wray (2105) found that same-party elections corresponded with increased Google searching just before the election.
One of the more commonly mentioned consequences of same-party elections in November, also, is the possibility that “orphaned” voters will not participate (see Nagler 2015, Masket, via Vox, 2016, Fisk 2019 – Fisk with the on-point title of “No Republican, No Vote”). Yet, many still do participate, and we will have to see over the next several months how candidates in these same-party races try to appeal to these voters. It is possible to get something like what reformers intended (something like the 2012 AD5 race) if a centrist candidate holds on to a sizable enough – if short of a majority – of the voters of their own party, and pulls in just enough of the orphaned voters as well. That’s a delicate balancing act, though, because going too far towards recruiting support from the other party can cost a candidate support within their own.
In the larger picture, I would also say that it can take a long time to assess how political institutions function. Politics is a complicated business, and many of the institutions interact. Some of the scholars referenced here have noted that California passed the top-two procedure and the citizen redistricting process around the same time, making it hard to sort out the impact of each. I also wrote, in a paper on the adoption of the simple majority requirement to pass the state budget (Proposition 25, also in 2010), that it directly impacted one of the main motivations for passing the top-two (to get more moderate legislators, to be able to pass a budget). The election rules also operate within a political context defined by the party and ideological divisions present at the time (I am particularly fond of Hans Noel’s book on the difference between these: link). With different ideological and social cleavages, the rules may also have different consequences.
About the author: Andrew Sinclair is an Assistant Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College. He has studied and written about California’s top-two primary process, as well as the primary election procedures in other states.