The retirement of a four-term Senator should open a breath of fresh air into California politics. But the stench of the top two system is fouling things up.
It’s rare to have a moment full of possibility. So many qualified people could run. And the sheer numbers of possible candidates provide the opportunity for an outsider with a novel approach to get heard, maybe even slip through and win. And California’s ossified elite sure could use some freshening up.
Except that the top two creates huge incentives to limit the number of candidates and outsiders. How’s that, you ask? In a couple ways. With a crowded ballot and two highly competitive rounds of voting, money is even more important than usual to compete. Candidates who don’t go in with their own money or a fundraising structure have little chance of being given a shot. There’s no possibility of building slowly through a primary season, because there are no longer primaries under the top two—and then having the party and its donors to come to you if you swipe the nomination.
There’s also the game theory of the top two. If too many Democrats run, they could split the vote so thoroughly that two Republican candidates could sneak through into the general election. That’s a live possibility in this circumstance—even though it would be highly anti-democratic to have that of outcome in a Democratic state.
So Democratic leaders and donors will work hard to keep too many serious candidates out of the race. (I’d bet that, with Kamala Harris already in, we’ll see either Tom Steyer or Antonio Villaraigosa in the race, but not both. John Burton will see to that). And Jim Brulte, the GOP leader, has a strong incentive to limit his field to two – to give his party a chance to exploit a big Democratic field. It’s another way the top two is anti-competitive (though it was sold as a way to create more political competition) and engages fewer voters.
Imagine if we got rid of top two (Dear Mr. Steyer, that would be a useful thing to do with your millions). As many Democrats and Republicans as possible could run, reach out to voters, and contest the race without fear of the intense pressure of party leaders. And each party would get a chance to advance a candidate to the general. So would smaller parties. Perhaps, with a more interesting election, Californians will start to understand the big mistake they made in adopting top two.