Of all the recent California political reforms — and there have been a passel – the Top Two electoral system seems the most controversial, and at least potentially, the most consequential. At various times and in various places, it has been described as the state’s political salvation, a foolish catastrophe, a way to weaken the two major parties, a way to destroy minor parties, a plot to enhance the moderate Republican agenda, or a tool that will at least occasionally eliminate Republican candidates from statewide races altogether. And then there are those who say it really doesn’t make much difference at all.
To shed some light on this important and complicated issue, the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC-Berkeley (full disclosure: I work at IGS) is devoting an entire issue of the California Journal of Politics and Policy to the Top Two. Now published on an open-access platform that is free to all, the Journal’s Top Two issue, released today, includes six academic research papers and eight commentary pieces by political practitioners.
First, a big caveat: This is all very preliminary. As we gather more data – and as voters, campaigns, and candidates learn more about the system – we may see different impacts. But for now, preliminary data is all we have, and preliminary data is better than none.
So what’s the conclusion about the Top Two? It’s easier to summarize the academic view than the practitioner perspective. As Betsy Sinclair of Washington University, who edited the issue, notes in her introduction to the research papers, the scholars used different methods of analysis but generally reached the same conclusion: Thus far, the Top Two hasn’t made a dramatic difference.
Thad Kousser of UCSD took a careful look at some of the high-profile statewide races in 2014, and concludes that the Top Two made no difference in the final outcome, generating, as he puts it, “much smoke but little fire.” Eric McGhee of the Public Policy Institute of California examines the fate of the Chamber of Commerce’s agenda. He finds that legislative Democrats have become more centrist in recent years, but it’s not clear that such moderation is due to the Top Two, or even that it’s had a real impact on the success of the business community in enacting its agenda into law. The other papers examine the 2012 election, also concluding that, as a general rule, there has been relatively little impact from the Top Two.
Why not? First, voters lack enough knowledge about candidates to pick flexible moderates. Douglas Ahler, Jack Citrin, and Gabe Lenz of IGS asked voters to rank the ideological positions of candidates just before the June 2012 primary. For members of the California political community, here is the most striking finding: Voters could not determine that Abel Maldonado was more moderate than his Tea Party opponent, the rough equivalent of mistaking Nelson Rockefeller for Barry Goldwater. There were similar results in other races.
Even if voters could pick out the moderates, few seem willing to abandon their party allegiances to vote for them. Jonathan Nagler of NYU finds astonishingly low rates of crossover voting in the primary, and in the general, he finds that many voters simply don’t vote in races where the ballot lists only two members of the other party. Sinclair, in a paper co-written with her colleague Michael Wray, finds that voters are trying to get more information – Google searches about the candidates go up in intra-party runoffs – but so far it hasn’t translated into different results at the polls.
Can the Top Two ever make a difference? Certainly. Andy Sinclair of NYU looks at a single 2012 Assembly race where it clearly did – Frank Bigelow leap-frogged Rico Oller in a Republican-on-Republican runoff – but this race seems reliant on fairly specific conditions that won’t apply to every district.
What about the practitioner view? Compared to the academic research, these boots-on-the-ground politicos generally thought the Top Two has made more of a difference, although beyond that there wasn’t much agreement.
Republicans Tony Quinn and Robert Naylor are favorable, Quinn arguing that the Top Two is forcing candidates and legislators to pay attention to all the voters of a district, Naylor contending that now there clearly are more moderates in the Legislature. They see the reform as working, more or less, as intended.
Democratic activist Steve Maviglio derides the Top Two as accomplishing nothing, and perhaps even making things worse. He acknowledges the potential for gamesmanship in voting by declaring that in last year’s gubernatorial primary, he voted for hard-right Republican Tim Donnelly, not because he wanted Donnelly as governor, but because he thought the conservative would prove the weakest candidate in the fall. Labor’s Sharon Cornu is equally critical, arguing that we don’t need elected officials who are “moderate” only by the standards of a scale shifted far to the right.
Democratic strategist Darry Sragow and reform advocate Zabrae Valentine caution against hasty judgments, while strategist Shaudi Falamaki Fulp praises the Top Two for at least having shaken up the staid nature of California politics. “In any industry,” Falamaki Fulp writes, “disruption that leads to innovation is encouraging.”
Democratic campaign consultant Katie Merrill raises a fascinating issue unaddressed by others: Is the Top Two bad for women candidates? Merrilll acknowledges it’s too soon to know, but she advises us all to keep our analytical eye on the ball over the next few cycles. She’s talking about the potential for gender discrimination, but you could say the same about all other aspects of the Top Two. The only thing we know for certain is that we don’t yet know enough, and we need to keep thinking about, talking about, and writing about this major change in the way we elect our leaders.
The Top-Two papers and commentaries can be found here.
Ethan Rarick is the director of the Robert T. Matsui Center for Politics and Public Service, a component of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC-Berkeley.