Why you should care

California’s electoral experiment offered hope that we might be able to rediscover the middle ground in America’s polarized politics. There’s not much evidence it’s working.

I confess: I was the optimist when California adopted its new elections system in 2010, reforms that introduced a new, independent commission to draw district boundaries every ten years. It also had a wild new approach to primary elections, where the two top vote getters, regardless of party, go on to the general election.

Suddenly it was Democrats battling Democrats in the general election, Republicans vs. Republicans and, in theory, independents against everyone else — the result of a process dubbed the “jungle primary.”

Suddenly, young, eager candidates aren’t content to wait their turn. They’re jumping in to challenge established brethren.

A new era of political moderation was dawning, reformers promised, with candidates now forced to appeal to the whole spectrum of voters rather than just the hardcore primary partisans that used to determine races in the state’s overwhelmingly “safe” districts — dominated by one party or another. The Golden State could use a bit of moderation. Studies show the legislature is the most divided in the country, struggling until recently to pass basic measures like a state budget.

I felt upbeat. My home state had finally found a cure for its paralyzing polarization. And as California has led on so many other fronts (medical marijuana, gay marriage, the tech industry), it could be a model the rest of our politically divided country could follow.

Four years later, I’ve got my doubts.

Yes, many more races are competitive. Former Department of Commerce official (under Obama) Ro Khanna, for example, is challenging Silicon Valley stalwart Mike Honda this year, dividing Democrats and tech industry bigwigs. Honda defeated Khanna by more than 20 percentage points in the June 4 primary election but with Khanna coming in second, they’ll face off again in November. Or there’s upstart candidate Eric Swalwell’s 2012 defeat of fellow Democrat Pete Stark, who at 80 was California’s longest serving congressman at the time.

Suddenly, young, eager candidates aren’t content to wait their turn. They’re jumping in to challenge established brethren, thanks to a system that gives challengers a better shot at taking out incumbents of their own party in districts dominated by voters that lean heavily one way or the other.

Competition, however, does not equal more moderate representation —not yet, anyway.

Screengrab of Rho speaking to camera

Rho Khanna

Eric McGhee and Daniel Krimm at the Public Policy Institute of California have been watching the state’s election results since the changes — three rounds, in all, counting the 2012 primary and general election votes and the 2014 primary earlier this month. More challengers have emerged, with a big jump in 2012, leveling off some in 2014. The contests for both state legislature seats and Congress have been much closer, on average, in the final vote breakdowns. BUT the vast majority of incumbent candidates still prevailed.

That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been some change around the edged. A 2014 USC study did find that partisanship in the California state legislature declined after the 2012 election, by 15 percent in the Assembly and 10 percent in the House, which it attributed to the election of more moderate Democrats.

If anything, California’s congressional candidates and eventual lawmakers became a bit more ideologically extreme.

 

If you were hoping for more independent or minor party candidates to get through in the news system, however, the news is pretty grim. In the 2014 primary, “the share of legislative or congressional races with no minor-party or independent candidate is up to 83 percent (from 72 percent in 2012),” McGhee and Krimm noted in a recent memo. And that’s despite the fact that California’s independent voters have reached a new high of 21 percent, just below the 29 percent of voters registered Republican.

The dynamics of the jungle primary have had more of an impact on open seat races, drawing in crowds of candidates and producing more unpredictable results, like the 2014 state comptroller’s primary contest where votes are still being counted to determine which two of four major candidates, who are within single digits of one another, will advance to November. And the new redistricting system has produced more open seats for politicians to fight over.

There’s also the possibility that the threat of competitive challengers could make incumbents behave more moderately in office.

But while it’s still early days, the evidence isn’t encouraging. “If anything, California’s congressional candidates and eventual lawmakers became a bit more ideologically extreme, and thus moved further apart from the average voter in their district, in 2012,” political scientists from University of California, San Diego, Columbia and the University of Chicago found in a 2013 paper.

Are California’s reforms a solution in search of a problem?

There is also a growing body of research questioning the conventional wisdom that the traditional party primary system drives politicians to behave in a more partisan fashion, in the first place.

McGhee says that while the political world and the media have zeroed in on the bloody intra-party fights, like Honda vs. Khanna or Stark vs. Swalwell, those have actually been outliers.

“For most races, the system produces results that are sort of broadly consistent to what we knew before,” he says. “In that sense it’s not a radical change to the landscape.” That raises another question: are California’s reforms a solution in search of a problem?

The one way the reforms do seem to have upended the status quo: political strategy.

“The political consultants, they don’t quite know how to handle each race,” given all the additional candidates and variables in the mix, says McGhee. “They don’t have a template in quite the same way that they used to.”

So the high-paid strategists are having to hustle to earn their money in California these days. But for the state’s voters, the much-hyped reforms might not quite have the same payoff.

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