California is voting on a ballot measure next week, Prop 14, to adopt a nonpartisan or blanket primary system in which voters from both parties run in the same first primary, narrowing the field to the top two candidates, regardless of partisan affiliation.
So all Democrats, or all Republicans, could be eliminated from competition even before we get to the November general election. It’s an odd system and there are probably good reasons that only one other state — Washington — uses the scheme.
One of the key arguments for so-called top-two primaries is that they encourage candidates to appeal to voters beyond the friendly confines of their own base. In most states, primary-nomination seekers often home in on wingnuts like ultra-liberal Democrats and right-wing Republicans, because they are the highest-propensity voters in primaries and they respond most reliably to hard-line rhetoric. But, the argument goes, this process too often tends to award the party’s nomination to candidates with such extreme views that they cannot win the general election against a mainstream candidate.
The evidence for both the problem and the supposed solution is weak at best. But California’s latest GOP primaries may convince some Republicans that the action is necessary. In both the gubernatorial and Senate races, the trend has been to focus on litmus-test ideological issues like immigration and abortion, to the neglect of what every poll shows is the No. 1 issue: jobs. Instead of debating how California can best stem the tide of job losses, candidates have drifted into debates over the Arizona immigration law. Meanwhile, Arizona slyly steals more California companies. Instead of debating strategies for getting taxes and regulation under control so that California can once again become a job magnet, the candidates are pushed toward differentiating themselves based on nuanced abortion policies.
As a member of Meg Whitman’s campaign team for governor, I am hardly unbiased, but it was undoubtedly her opponent who desperately first pushed the ideological buttons. Steve Poizner, trailing badly in the polls, had no answer for Meg’s core trilogy of priorities: jobs, reduced spending and school reform. So he falsely accused her of favoring amnesty for illegal aliens. And he commandeered the issues of the race, diverting voters from their top concern, the economy. But had Poizner not been a wealthy self-financing candidate with many millions for mischief, his diversionary tactics would not have been felt. In the end, however, Meg will win big, so that race probably won’t figure in Republicans’ votes on Prop 14.
The Senate race, though, might provide reasons for some Republicans to support and oppose the primary change. Like the gubernatorial race, the contest has lurched rightward as conservatives Carly Fiorina and Chuck Devore pushed wedge issues to overtake the early front-runner, moderate Tom Campbell. If Campbell fades, and polls suggest he will, then moderates will argue that conservatives once again hijacked a primary to choose a nominee who is less apt to win in November. This conclusion is debatable, especially in light of the fact that Campbell can’t even forge a lead over a divided conservative field.
Conservatives may see in the Senate race an argument against Prop 14. If only one of the conservatives, either Fiorina or Devore, were in the race, thereby not splitting the conservative vote, Campbell would never have even been expected to win the race. The multi-candidate primary problem will get exponentially worse for conservatives in a blanket primary system.
Unless there is a gatekeeper organization to prevent multiple conservative candidacies, many won’t survive the first primary.
It’s too bad Republicans can’t wait to see how the primaries play out before voting on Prop 14.
David Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.