In 2010 California voters backed a Proposition on the ballot that was supposed to end the dominance of incumbents in elections (primaries mainly), reduce partisanship and give third-party members a better chance at winning elections.  What California voters backed in 2010 was a system known as a “Jungle Primary.”  Last Tuesday the system was put into action for the first time.  It flopped.  Not only did no third-party members win enough votes to make it to a general election but not a single incumbent who was running for reelection failed to make the general’s ballot in their respective districts.

Now let’s back up for a second and explain what a Jungle Primary is.  Almost all of us know what a primary is.  The election where the party’s voters (also can be open to independents or even the other partisans) decide the party’s nominee for the general election.  A Jungle Primary is a variant of this format.  In a Jungle Primary everybody, no matter what partisan persuasion, can vote.  But they can only vote for one candidate regardless of their partisan affiliation.

What separates a Jungle Primary from most other forms of primaries are two basic things.  First, all the candidates, no matter what partisan identification they have, run as appear on the same ballot.  Second, again regardless of partisan persuasion, the top two vote getting candidates are the only individuals to advance to the general election.

The thinking behind this primary format is that it splits the partisan vote among multiple Democratic and Republican candidates thus allowing for third-party candidates to come up the middle and place first or second in the primary.  Independents (typically less partisan voters but not always) could be incentivized to turn out in greater numbers.  In CA this system was especially appealing with little movement in the parties hold on districts.

In 2001 when CA redistricted the legislature created a map that almost guaranteed every incumbent victory up to the next redistricting in 2011.  This system worked so well that when Congressional seats were trading hands at unprecedented levels in 2006, 2008 and 2010 only one seat switched hands (R to D).  CA voters decided they want to change this.  Along with their vote for a Jungle Primary they also voted for an Independent Commission” to draw new boundaries.  The Independent Commission has been anything but independent (drew maps that heavily leaned left).

The Jungle Primary system was another way for voters and activists to ensure competitive elections.  Last Tuesday it saw its first test run.  The results were less than favorable to independent or third-party candidates.  In the 26th Congressional District Independent Linda Parks finished a distant third and in the 10th district Chad Condit lost.   Even in local races such as the San Diego mayoral race Independent (and former Republican) candidate Nathan Fletcher lost.

But even if the system fails to yield strong third-party or Independent candidates coming out of the wood-works it ensures that both parties will have to alter their strategies to avoid what happened in the 31st district Tuesday.  In the Democratic leaning district GOP Rep.Mike Miller and Republican Bob Dutton finished first and second respectively while the Democrats top choice, Redlands Mayor Peter Aguilar, finished about a 1,000 votes behind Dutton because other Democrats ate up a quarter of the vote.  This ensures the seat will go to the GOP in November.  The DCCC had been heavily targeting the seat as a takeover in a state vital to gaining the 26 new seats they need to retake the House of Representatives.

This illustrates one of the consequences of the jungle primary.  Seemingly competitive seats may not be so if partisans come out in the primaries in greater numbers or one side has a massive field of candidates splitting the vote.

In both heavily GOP and Democratic districts across the state the system also had unintended (or obvious to some) consequences.  In the heavily Republican districts only Republicans made it out of the primary.  Ditto for many heavily Democratic districts.  The system still excludes third-party or independent candidates and worse it now excludes one of the major political parties.

The results from Tuesday also upset some of the party’s hopes for November.  In the swing 21st district, Democrats preferred candidate Blong Xiong finished third behind GOP candidate David Valadao and John Hernandez (D).  Downballot, Republicans at the state level also saw several of their best nominees in competitive races lose.

Both Republicans and Democrats were quick to point out they are still studying the results.  But one thing is clear.  The new system in CA presents both obvious pitfalls and benefits to the parties and even the voters of California.  Partisanship is unlikely to take a backseat to moderation in competitive races.  This being especially true if like Miller and Dutton you owe your election to increased base turnout in a primary.  For both parties the 31st is a case study in what not to allow to happen in a primary.  The DCCC and the state party need to endorse a candidate early and then make sure said candidates gets 1st or 2nd in the primary to advance on.

Not a single incumbent lost reelection in the primary Tuesday.  The top three Independent or third-party candidates (Parks, Condit, Fletcher) lost.  Turnout did not increase among independents according to preliminary data and partisanship turnout in the primaries was actually up.  Partisan voters in the state may realize they have the chance to game the system and if they vote in the right numbers ensure their party can take/hold a 31st for two years.

In essence the system flopped.  The very things it was supposed to thwart occurred regardless.  Word of advice for the voters of CA.  You cannot escape your state’s partisanship.  More importantly, you cannot escape your own no matter how you dress it up.


5 thoughts on “California’s new Jungle Primary System flops

  1. Here’s what I would consider way more important than the number of third-party victories: how many moderates came in second place behind a radical (perhaps incumbent) of their own party?

    1. Fair enough. But consider this fact. In many of these districts which pits an incumbent of the party vs. another of their party in the general election independents and Republicans/Democrats (the other side’s partisans) are likely to stay home. Now what does that say for the less ideological candidate’s chances of getting elected in a solidly red/blue partisan district?

      1. If that’s what happens, then I will be disappointed and consider the new primary system a failure. How sure are you that that’s what will happen?

      2. Fairly sure. You have to look at the results and read into their meaning. Now I could be wrong, I just really doubt it. Here is number-wise how it played out for the US House due to the new primary system. Out of a total 52 House districts 7 will only have Democrats running in November. In comparison only two districts will only have GOP candidates. The rest will either have a Democratic vs. Republican, Republican vs. Democrat or major party candidate vs. a third party candidate. On the face of it this might not look so bad. But many of the districts with the major parties going at it are already decided. Look at it this way. Virtually every district in San Francisco, LA, Oakland and San Diego has two major parties candidates vying for the seats in November. But is a Democrat really going to win in Orange County. Is a Republican really going to beat Nancy Pelosi in San Fran?

        That is just the surface. This does not even take into account that in most districts with a jungle primary you have to get your base out. So playing to that base ensures they will come out. And if you gamble and try to win it all on primary day it is possible you can. Just look at District 31. The district has 49.4% Latinos within its boundaries and one of the GOP members to come out in the GOP only match-up in November is firebrand anti-illegal immigration Congressman Gary Miller. Not hard to guess he got his supporters out on primary day by his conservative rhetoric.

        But also consider this. If you sit in a safe district regardless, never have a tough race, and can be as ideological as you want why would you compromise? Why would you act in the best interests of the country if there is no political reason to do so? Call me a cynic but most politicians need to be forced to do the right thing for political reasons. The new primary system in CA does not fix that problem. It just papers it over for a short while.

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