Recent Study Misses Big Picture in Evaluation of Top-Two Primary

Last week, the University of California-San Diego (UCSD) invited Professor Gabriel Lenz to discuss his study on the impact of the top-two primary system in California. As a result of focusing solely on the election of more moderate candidates, the study does not offer a clear understanding of the consequences of the top-two primary.

The study by Professor Lenz and the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS) is trying to answer one question: Does the top-two primary help moderate candidates? The experiment was conducted during the June primaries with 2839 voters in districts where moderate candidates faced extreme candidates.

At this stage of completion, the result of the experiment is that moderate candidates do not perform better under the top-two primary system than they did under the closed one. One of the main reasons for this result is most voters failed to distinguish extreme candidates from moderate ones.

The results of this study, one of the only ones conducted during the 2012 elections, will likely please opponents of the top-two primary and fuel their arguments that Proposition 14 is a failure. However, before taking this result for granted, it is important to understand the limits inherent to studies such as this one.

The IGS study only recorded voter behavior during the 2012 June primaries and was focused on one issue: the election of moderate candidates. By its nature, the study is unable to grasp the impact of the top-two primary in its entirety.

First, by only looking at the June 2012 primaries, the study did not take into account the election of a number of moderate candidates in the November elections. A number of intra-party races ended in the favor of the more moderate candidate.

Despite most of these candidates finishing second in their primaries, they managed to appeal to a broader audience in the general election. This led, for example, to Eric Swalwell‘s victory over long-time incumbent Pete Stark and Marc Levine’s win over Michael Allen, an incumbent who had the support of the Speaker of the Assembly.

The supporters of 'top-two' also strongly believe the primary system will introduce much needed competition in state elections.
Lucas Eaves
Second, while it is true that electing more moderate candidates was one of the major arguments made in favor of the top-two primary, it was not the only one. Judging the success of the top-two primary only in the light of that criteria doesn’t reveal the big picture.

Proponents of the top-two primary believe it is truly important for the democratic process to offer equal ballot access to everybody, regardless of party affiliation. This is a goal that cannot be measured with numbers, but is achieved simply by the use of the open, nonpartisan format.

The supporters of “top-two” also strongly believe the primary system will introduce much needed competition in state elections. The nonpartisan primary system, combined with independent redistricting, resulted in California having the most competitive elections in the country in 2012.

More importantly, in a state clearly dominated by the Democrats, the top-two primary has allowed a new type of competition to emerge: intra-party competition. While nobody can expect the Republicans to retake the upper hand in California anytime soon, increased competition among Democrats has the potential to significantly impact the state’s political landscape.

For the upcoming 2014 elections, Ro Khanna, former Assistant Commerce Secretary and supported by Silicon Valley, is already challenging seven-term congressman Mike Honda, who is supported by President Obama, Nancy Polosi, and the whole Democratic establishment. More competitive races like this are expected to emerge within the next year.

A few more election cycles will be needed to evaluate the true impact “top-two” has on California, but it would be denial to believe that nothing has changed.