California Open Primary Analysis: Independent Candidates

In California’s first non-partisan open primary, voter turnout across party lines was a low 31.6%[1]. This could, in part, be attributable to President Obama and Mitt Romney having locked up their nominations prior to California’s open primary vote. There is no evidence or reports of voter confusion or administrative failures with the primary’s implementation. The Independent Voter Project sponsored the following open primary analysis on the strengths and weaknesses of independent candidates.

California Open Primary Analysis: Executive Overview

A common misconception is that the open primary was about independent candidates. Open primary supporters have and continue to assert that the open primary ethic is based on the notion that democracy works best when elections are decided by the most voters; whether our representatives do or don’t have party labels is less important than who they are accountable to when they get into office.

Out of the over 240 candidates that ran for California congressional office, 25 ran without a party affiliation. The candidates fell into two statistical categories: those that received less than 7% of the vote (Tier 1) and those that received greater than 11% district-wide (Tier 2). No candidates fell between to two tiers.

The Tier 1 non-partisan candidates had either limited funding or heavily funded opponents from one or both major parties. Tier 2 non-partisan candidates generally faced weak opposition in highly partisan districts.

The most interesting races were the Central Valley’s 10th District and the Ventura/Los Angeles Counties 26th District. As non-partisan candidates, both Chad Condit and Linda Parks had limited funding and faced strong opposition from both Democrats and Republicans, yet garnered a significant number of votes. Each outperformed their opponents on a cost per vote basis.

Key Statistics:

  • 31.6% voter turnout statewide
  • 25 non-partisan candidates across 20 districts ran for Congress
  • 18 of 25 non-partisan candidates received under 7% of the vote (Tier 1)
  • 7 of 25 non-partisan candidates received over 11% of the vote (Tier 2)
  • 4 candidates in Tier 2 are running in the general election 
California Open Primary Analysis: Independent Candidates

A common misconception is that the open primary was about independent candidates. Open primary supporters have and continue to assert that the open primary ethic is based on the notion that democracy works best when elections are decided by the most voters; whether our representatives do or don’t have party labels is less important than who they are accountable to when they get into office.

The large number of No Party Preference candidates surprised open primary advocates. Twenty-five non-partisan candidates in 20 districts (out of over 240) ran without a party affiliation. The average candidate received 7.5% of the vote. Of the 25 candidates, 4 made it to the general election: Mary Singleton (District 13), Terry Phillips (District 23), David Hernandez (District 29), and Bill Bloomfield (District 33).

We have divided the non-partisan candidates into two tiers; (1) those receiving under 7% of the vote in their district (18 of 25 with an average of just 3.3%); and, (2) those that got more than 11% (7 of 25 with an average of 18.6%).  

Tier 1 Candidates: Received less than 7% of the Vote

Those in the first tier of candidates shared several commonalities. For the most part, (1) they were not well-funded, (2) had little or no name recognition; and, (3) they ran in districts against viable Democratic and Republican challengers. It should also be noted that half of all non-partisan candidates that ran for Congress in California this election had no record of expenditures on file with the Federal Election Commission. These candidates represented two-thirds of all candidates in this first tier of non-partisan candidates.

The average expenditures for those candidates reporting in Tier 1 were $14,351.50. It should, however, be noted that there were two non-partisan statistical outliers that received less than 7% of the vote in their district: Jack Doyle and Dick Eiden. While they spent considerably more money than other non-partisans in Tier 1, they also faced more heavily funded opposition.

In northern San Diego and Orange Counties’ 49th District, non-partisan candidate Dick Eiden spent just under $26,000 or $3.25 per vote to receive 6.8%. Republican incumbent Darrell Issa spent over $610,000 or $8.05 per vote and came in at 61.1%. Democratic challenger Jerry Tetalman, however, who spent only $29,000 ($0.81 per vote) received 30.7% and won a spot in the general election.

Jack Doyle, a non-partisan candidate in San Diego’s 52nd District spent around $60,000, or $ 9.79 per vote, and only received 4.1% of the vote. Doyle’s campaign was met by 9 opponents. They had a combined campaign war chest of over $3.7 million. Republican incumbent Rep. Brian Bilbray spent over $764, 000 or $12.36 per vote and received 41%. Democrat challenger Scott Peters spent over $1.9 million or $55.78 per vote and received 22.6%. Democrat Lori Saldaña spent over $395,000 or $11.84 per vote and received 22.1%. The most significant statistic, perhaps, is that one Republican candidate, John Stahl, spent $483,995, yet only received 3.6% of the vote; less than independent Doyle. This amounts to over $88 per vote, or nearly 10x that of Doyle.

With these two outliers removed, the average dollar spent on non-partisan campaigns within this tier came in at $5,713.75. The average expenditures of their successful opponents were $749,834.

Tier 2 Candidates: Recognition, Cash, and Opposition

The second tier consists of 7 non-partisan candidates who received over 11% of the vote. There were three criteria (or combination thereof) that explain the relative success of each candidate: (1) political ID, (2) significant funding, and/or (3) a single-party opposition.

District 13:  2 Democrats, 1 Non-Partisan (no Republican choice)

Marilyn Singleton (NPP) Single-party opposition 11.8%
Barbara Lee* (DEM) Political ID/Significant funding 83.1%
Justin Jelincic (DEM) No political ID 5.0%

District 23: 2 Republicans, 1 Non-Partisan (no Democratic choice)

Terry Phillips (NPP) Single-party opposition/Political ID 17.3%
Kevin McCarthy* (REP) Significant funding/Political ID 72.2%
Eric Parker (REP) No political ID 10.6%

District 29: 2 Democrats, 1 Non-Partisan (no Republican choice)

David Hernandez (NPP) Single-party opposition/Political ID 21.7%
Tony Cardenas (DEM) Political ID/Significant funding 64.4%
Richard Valdez (DEM) No political ID 13.9%

District 33: 4 Democrats, 1 Republican, 1 Non-Partisan, 1 Libertarian, 1 Green

Bill Bloomfield (NPP) Significant funding 24.6%
Henry Waxman* (DEM) Political ID/significant funding 45.3%
David Christopher (REP) No political ID 15.3%
Bruce Magolin (DEM) No political ID 4.4%
Steve Collett (LIB) (Significant funding)** 4.3%
David Steinman (GRN) (Significant funding)** 3.5%
Zein Obagi (DEM)  No political ID 1.8%
Tim Pape (DEM)  No political ID 0.7%

District 15: 2 Democrats, 1 Non-Partisan (no republican choice)

Christopher Pareja (NPP) Single-party opposition 21.7%
Pete Stark* (DEM) Political ID/Significant funding 42.1%
Eric Swalwell (DEM) Significant funding 36.2%

District 10: 1 Republican, 2 Democrats, 2 Non-Partisans

Chad Condit (NPP) Some political ID/Some funding/Strong opp 15.0%
Jeff Denham* (REP) Political ID/Significant funding 49.2%
Jose Hernandez (DEM) Political ID/Significant funding 28.0%
Michael Barkley (DEM) No political ID 5.4%
Troy McComak (NPP) No political ID 2.3%

District 26: 1 Republican, 4 Democrats, 1 Non-partisan

Linda Parks (NPP) Political ID/Significant funding 18.3%
Tony Strickland (REP) Political ID/Significant funding 44.1%
Julia Brownley (DEM) Political ID/Significant funding 26.9%
Jess Herrera (DEM) No political ID 6.5%
David Thanye (DEM) No political ID 2.5%
Albert Goldberg (DEM) No political ID 1.7%

 * Denotes incumbent

** Despite significant funding, these third-party candidates still received less than 5% of the vote.

There was one non-partisan candidate, Chad Condit, who outperformed the criteria. Condit may arguably fall into the first category of having political experience and indirect name ID because his father represented a portion of the district he was running in over a decade ago (he was defeated after a high profile controversy). However, polling conducted before the election put Condit at less than 4% suggesting that he did not enjoy a benefit going into the election. Yet, Condit broke through to Tier 2 gaining 15% of the vote in a five-person race against heavily funded incumbent Republican Rep. Jeff Denham and Democratic challenger and astronaut Jose Hernandez as well as a second independent candidate.

Candidates that Qualified for the November Election:

Four non-partisan congressional candidates out of 53 districts qualified for the general election. Of these candidates, three faced elections in highly partisan districts with no opposition party challenger. The other candidate was heavily funded and spent over $50 per vote.

(1) District 13 (Oakland): Incumbent Barbara Lee (D) and one little known Democratic candidate, Justin Jelincic, paved the way for non-partisan Marilyn Singleton to make the ballot by coming in second place with just 11.8% of the vote. Singleton spent $2.24 per vote.

District Candidate % of Vote Votes Cast $ per Vote Receipts Disbursements
13 Barbara Lee* 83.1% 94,709 $8.06 $873,858 $763,619
13 Marilyn Singleton 11.8% 13,502 $2.24 $38,807 $30,181
13 Justin Jelincic 5.0% 5,741 $0.41 $2,225 $2,326

(2) District 23 (Bakersfield Area): Terry Phillips, an acclaimed journalist, renowned foreign correspondent, and victim of a highly publicized employment termination with National Public Radio during a series of scandals involving NPR in 2011, made it in the top-two with 17.3% of the vote.  Phillips ran against incumbent Kevin McCarthy (R) (72.2%) and Democratic challenger Eric Parker (10.6%). Phillips’ notoriety in combination with running as the only opposition to the Republican ticket gave him a shot at the seat in November. Phillips spent $1.07 per vote.

District Candidate % of Vote Votes Cast $ per Vote Receipts Disbursements
23 Kevin McCarthy* 72.2% 71,076 $40.34 $3,888,279 $2,867,114
23 Terry Phillips 17.3% 17,005 $1.07 $19,109 $18,212
23 Eric Parker 10.6% 10,399 no data no data no data

(3) District 29 (Los Angeles): In the race for congressional District 29, non-partisan civic leader and homelessness activist David R. Hernandez came in second with 21.7% of the vote against two Democratic opponents: Los Angeles City Councilman Tony Cardenas and challenger Richard Valdez. Hernandez spent $0.43 per vote.

District Candidate % of Vote Votes Cast $ per Vote Receipts Disbursements
29 Tony Cardenas 64.4% 24,880 $14.67 $551,272 $365,108
29 David Hernandez 21.7% 8,382 $0.43 $10,567 $3,575
29 Richard Valdez 13.9% 5,379 no data no data no data

(4) District 33 (Los Angeles): The fourth candidate, Bill Bloomfield, had considerable funding compared to his seven opponents. Bloomfield, a successful businessman, spent almost $1.4 million and received 24.6% of the vote in his bid to oppose longtime incumbent Henry Waxman (D), in the general election. Bloomfield spent $50.27 per vote. His other challengers included a relatively unknown Republican Christopher David, two other Democrats, as well as two fairly well-funded third party candidates. Libertarian candidate Stephen Collett spent over $180,000 to receive just over 4% of the vote. Green candidate David Steinman spent about $120,000 and received 3.5% of the vote.

District Candidate % of Vote Votes Cast $ per Vote Receipts Disbursements
33 Henry Waxman* 45.3% 51,193 $10.88 $614,184 $556,748
33 Bill Bloomfield 24.6% 27,842 $50.27 $1,406,117 $1,399,714
33 Christopher David 15.3% 17,252 $0.47 $8,848 $8,182
33 Bruce Magolin 4.4% 5,018 $0.94 $5,341 $4,704
33 Steve Collett 4.3% 4,914 $38.07 $214,989 $187,077
33 David Steinman 3.5% 3,938 $30.46 $147,699 $119,968
33 Zein Obagi Jr. 1.8% 1,988 $31.87 $63,362 $63,362
33 Tim Pape 0.7% 847 no data no data no data
Candidates that did not qualify for the November Election:

Three non-partisan candidates received more than 11% of the vote, but failed to qualify for the November general election: (1) Christopher Pareja in the East Bay’s 15th District; (2) Chad Condit, from the Central Valley’s 10th District; and, (3) Linda Parks in Ventura’s 26th District.

Pareja can be distinguished from Condit and Parks because he failed to reach the general election despite having no opposition-party challenger. In his bid, he faced a 39-year career politician incumbent Rep. Pete Stark (D) and a relatively unknown challenger Eric Swalwell. Pareja spent $1.30 per vote.

The most interesting races were the Condit and Parks contests.

Chad Condit, District 10

Chad Condit came in 3rd of 5 challengers for the 10th congressional District, including: a fellow non-partisan candidate, an incumbent Republican, and a well-funded Democratic challenger. The incumbent Rep. Jeff Denham spent over $600,000 and received 49.2% of the vote, or $13.21 per vote. His major Democratic challenger, astronaut Jose Hernandez, is a hero in the Latino community and was handpicked by the Obama administration to challenge Denham. He spent almost $400,000 and received 28% of the vote. This amounts to $14.96 per vote.

Condit announced and filed to run for office on the last day possible, giving him less than three months to start and develop his campaign. He was outspent by two high profile opponents 10-to-1, and received over 15% of the vote. Condit was also supported by icPurple, a Super PAC that supported independent candidates. icPurple spent $30,000 on campaign commercials in support of Condit. If you include this amount in Condit’s campaign expenditures, he spent $6.77 per vote.

Chad Condit did have the benefit of some name identification within the district. His father, Gary Condit, represented a good portion of the district over ten years ago. However, his father was defeated after he became ensnarled in a high profile murder investigation. Polling conducted at the beginning of the filing period showed Condit receiving less than 4% of the vote.

From an analytical perspective, however, what is most valuable from the Condit campaign is the limited resources they did have were deployed in such a way so as to create a control group against which the effectiveness of the campaign could be measured. The 10th District includes all of Stanislaus County and a portion of San Joaquin County to the north. Condit was also raised in Stanislaus and his father once represented a portion of the district. The Condit campaign received just 5.4% of the vote in San Joaquin, but they collected 18.6% of the vote in Stanislaus County. This is important because the Condit campaign did not run a ground operation in San Joaquin and their social media efforts were targeted entirely to Stanislaus County voters. The factors help explain the disparity in voting percentages across county lines and indicates that a coordinated online and ground campaign can have a significant impact on actual votes received.

CD10-Stanislaus County CD10-San Joaquin County
Candidate OVERALL Mail Election Day OVERALL Mail Election Day $ per Vote
Jeff Denham* 48.83% 36.99% 24.25% 50.32% 37.53% 12.78% $13.14
Jose Hernandez 25.71% 19.37% 6.34% 34.30% 26.44% 7.90% $14.88
Chad Condit 18.63% 13.87% 4.76% 5.41% 4.02% 1.41% $4.62
Mike Barkley 4.82% 3.96% 0.85% 7.00% 5.55% 1.44% $2.03
Troy McComak 2.01% 1.53% 0.48% 2.98% 2.32% 0.66% no data

The Condit campaign relied on a staff of family and close friends, walking door-to-door, a limited mail campaign, and a social media strategy targeted to Stanislaus County.

Linda Parks, District 26

Linda Parks came in 3rd of 6 challengers for the 26th Congressional District. The race included two substantial spenders, Sen. Tony Strickland (R) and Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D). Sen. Tony Strickland spent over $408,000 or $8.33 per vote to sustain 44.1% of the vote. Assemblywoman spent over $600,000 or $20.10 per vote, closing at 26.9%.

District Candidate % of Vote Votes Cast $ per Vote Receipts Disbursements
26 Anthony Strickland 44.1% 49,043 $8.33 $1,414,993 $408,738
26 Julia Brownley 26.9% 29,892 $20.10 $923,055 $600,969
26 Linda Parks 18.3% 20,301 $11.30 $240,592 $229,401
26 Jess Herrera 6.5% 7,244 $3.27 $23,708 $23,709
26 David Thayne 2.5% 2,809 $22.18 $109,014 $62,302
26 Albert Goldberg 1.7% 1,880 $6.45 $12,131 $12,131

Parks had her name in the press often, a campaign website, but very little social media presence. She attended numerous community events, but did not appear to have a get out the vote operation comparable to the Condit campaign. Early March polling revealed that Parks had a significant 42.6% to 35.5% lead against Republican opponent Sen. Tony Strickland. Her polling numbers spiraled downward leading up to the primary election as the Democrats poured resources into a massive negative campaign. Faced with the attack, the independent lacked the political infrastructure to rebut the campaign.

Here, the most critical lesson of this unexpected season of independent candidates lies. Without a long-term investment in a political infrastructure, independent candidates are vulnerable to negative campaigning. This is because each Party has a core of base voters that will respond to trusted messengers regardless of the message. This will always be a vulnerability of No Party Preference candidates. Only time will tell whether some kind of surrogate for information sharing can ultimately close this gap. But, absent such an investment, candidates who choose to run as independents do so at a significant disadvantage even in an open primary environment.

Parks’ campaigning began early in election season. She is a sitting, well-respected Ventura County Supervisor and a former Republican. Like Condit, Parks faced strong Democrat and Republican opposition. However, unlike Condit, Parks polled in second place for the vast majority of the election. This may by attributable to her high positive name identification, combined with having campaign funds of over $200,000. She was also supported by $52,000 in TV commercials courtesy of icPurple. As a consequence, she faced over a million dollars worth of negative TV and mailers spent by the Democratic, opposition, mostly attributable to the DCCC and accountable for her ultimate defeat.

Read the Executive Summary here or Download a PDF of the Full Report


[1] The breakdown of voter turnout based on party-lines will not be available from the Secretary of State until after the November election.