Let Them Eat Top Two

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

John Wildermuth, writing in this space, made an argument to which I’m deeply sympathetic: we should embrace the top two primary because it makes for better stories. “Even the folks who don’t particularly like California’s new top-two primary system have to admit that it’s going to make elections a lot more fun to watch in the state,” he wrote.

This appeals to me as a journalist. And I agree with his point; the top two is fun to watch. But John’s column disappointed me – because he undersells just how good a story the top two is for journalists.

John points to a Congressional district in San Jose as an example of the fun. He notes that the top two is likely to produce not one but two elections next year between two Democrats: incumbent Mike Honda and challenger Ro Khanna. That’s good, John writes, because they are interesting politicians who will produce interesting competition, and “competition is always a good thing.”

What’s curious is why John stops there. It’s not just the interesting politicians and competition that top two produces will make for good political fun.

It’s all the money and personality and bling that such a race will have. Those are the gifts of top two.

Think of it this way. Without top two, Khanna could run against Honda only once, and then in a primary. And that would be a tragedy, for many reasons. Here are a couple.

  1. We wouldn’t get to experience the full force of their personalities. Without the top two, we’d have only one primary contest between these two. And then the general election would be a choice essentially between candidates of different parties – and that’s a choice between competing philosophies.

But ideas and philosophies are boring, and hard to explain, and no one wants to read stories about that. But since these are two Democrats with nearly identical views on the issues, the contest will turn much more on their compelling personalities. And – even better — on which one can destroy the other one personally. That’s always entertaining – and produces stories that are good for journalists.

2. Without the top two, big donors would have only one chance to corrupt a future Congressman.

Once again, the old system, which permitted partisan primaries, was often a contest for money, particularly in the primaries, when candidates of the same party often had to distinguish themselves with electability and by raising money. But in this system, money becomes a way to distinguish the two candidates in two different rounds of elections. Which means more fundraising. And when two candidates of the same party advance to the runoff, money becomes more important as a way of distinguishing candidates, since their party affiliation – the thing that matters most to voters – is the same.

All that extra competition means more fundraising and more money – and more fun and interesting billionaires to write about. Billionaires, I can tell you firsthand, are much more interesting to interview than actual voters, and one of the advantages of top two is that it gives more power to the interesting rich folk – so journalists can interview the fun people who really matter.

And don’t forget: more money means more chance for corruption. And what’s a better story than corruption? It’s really the gift that keeps on giving. We journalists can chase corruption stories long beyond the election season.

There are, of course, a few pointy-headed people out there who would say top two isn’t that much of an improvement, that elections are about more than just entertainment. But such people are boring. And if you scratch the surface, they are mostly proponents of crazy, alternative, pie-in-the-sky reforms that only really work in academic papers and in a majority of the world’s democratic countries.

And none of that is as interesting as top two.

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