Top Two Reform Speaks to the Political Middle

Ed Coghlan
Contributing Editor & Special Correspondent, California Forward

On NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, host Chuck Todd made a comment in the guise of a question that talked about the “hollowed-out middle” of American politics, namely how hyper-partisanship will endure because voter behavior in the primaries only results in very conservative Republicans and very liberal Democrats.

The story of growing division is a common theme in political cable news, which can often focus on partisan conflicts and Twitter wars.

Well, Chuck, while that might be true where you live and obviously guides how you produce your program, it isn’t the case where I live.

Since Californians passed the Top Two primary in 2010 that middle vote, which Todd and others think has been disenfranchised nationally by the hyper-partisanship, has been alive and well in the Golden State.

What Californians did is make the primaries less about political parties and more about the candidates, when it gave every voter the ability to vote for any candidate in primary elections.

“As the ‘Big Sort’ continues to polarize the American electorate, the Top Two provides a terrific opportunity for voters in the minority party to have a voice in general elections,” said Pete Peterson, dean of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy and a Republican member of the bipartisan CA Fwd’s Leadership Council.

The idea was to give politicians an incentive — or maybe even force them — to appeal to all voters in their districts. Observers of California campaigns have been weighing in on the impact with multiple Top Two primary elections under our belt.

“Under the top-two primary, candidates tend to campaign toward the middle, while under the old rules the tendency was to appeal to the extremes on both ends of the bell curve,” said Chris Taipo, president of Legislative Strategies Inc. “The result is a more moderate legislature on both sides of the aisle which more accurately reflects the electorate at large.”

While Democrats still dominate California politics, it’s the type of Democrat that the Top Two has helped evolve. Moderate Democrats are getting elected after surviving primaries and winning election presumably with some Republican support.

While that idea is apparently still anathema to the national narrative Todd talks about, Top Two is one part of a recipe developed in California that can help douse the raging hyper-partisanship that continues to paralyze our federal elected officials. The result at the federal level is what former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently described as, “governing by crisis.”

Panetta was a founding co-chair of California Forward, which has been at the center of California’s reform movement since 2007. CA Fwd promoted a number of political reforms, including the Top Two Primary, which have eased the gridlock and restored confidence in state government.

“The Top Two Primary, Citizens’ Redistricting and other reforms that CA Fwd championed have demonstrably eased partisan gridlock,” said Lenny Mendonca, Democratic co-chair of the CA Fwd Leadership Council. “California is in much better shape than ten years ago.”

Peterson, who ran against Alex Padilla in the 2014 race for California Secretary of State, sees the Top Two effect as positive overall.

“As someone who ran – albeit unsuccessfully – for statewide office here in California, I know firsthand the effect the Top Two has in forcing candidates to reach across the aisle before the primary, which carries through to the general election and governing itself,” said Peterson.

For Mendonca, the moderating effect is letting California political leaders expand the amount of common ground to allow them to tackle the big issues like the lack of affordable housing, the need for workforce training and other economic problems that require consensus-building and results-oriented thinking to solve.

“As we look forward, the state’s moderating political climate gives us hope that we are in a better position to continue the reform movement with the goal of making the California dream available to all,” said Mendonca.

While the New York and Washington D.C. bubble continues to focus and obsess over the battles that hyper-partisanship helps create, they might channel their inner Horace Greely who famously wrote in the New York Tribune in 1865: “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.”

One hundred and fifty years later, the men and women of the national media might go west and find a different story and a better way to govern.

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