Jungle Primary In The One-Party State

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Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. On Twitter, to his frequent regret, at @burtlikko. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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37 Responses

  1. Avatar Ryan Noonan says:

    Nate Silver (I’m pretty sure it was him) has written interesting things about California’s situation. They have the problem of being a generally quite liberal state, but the Republicans in the state (what few exist) are extremely conservative. This makes them very unpalatable to the median voter and means that Democrats dominate the landscape.

    You also have the problem you mention, in which budgetary issues require a two-thirds vote. It basically paralyzes the legislature (see also the United States Senate), which makes voting a particularly pointless affair.Report

  2. Avatar Michelle says:

    Thanks for reminding me of yet another reason I’m happy I no longer live in California–the clusterf**k electoral process. Between the endless ballot initiatives, the lack of a viable Republican Party (and I say this as a nominally registered Democrat), the ever higher taxes combined with declining services, and the overall impossibility of running the place, I can’t imagine ever going back.

    This whole “jungle” primary thing only increases the dysfunction that has become governance in California. WTF were voters thinking?Report

  3. Avatar Dan Miller says:

    Things like this are why I’m glad I’m moving.Report

  4. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    As with most “staunchly Democrat” states, what’s happening in California is that there are two or three big population centers that skew strongly Democrat, and the entire rest of the state is Republican.Report

    • Avatar karl says:

      In other words, Democrats dominate where the people are and Republicans dominate where the people aren’t.Report

    • Avatar Michelle says:

      As Ryan points out above, it also doesn’t help that moderates have fled the CA Republican Party, so statewide candidates tend to be completely out of touch with most of the populace.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        As I discuss below in response to Scott E., the response to this from the California Democrats has been the effective ensconcing of incumbents and their hand-machined successors as a political mandarin class, lacking incentive to respond to concerns from anyone other than the monied interests who fuel the political machinery.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain says:

      The same is true for some of the “staunchly Republican” states as well: the urban parts of the state skew Democratic, the less urban parts Republican. In the 2008 elections, if you look at the red/blue maps done at a county level, you can go to several of the states that were red and pick out the counties with the largest cities. A “red” state is simply one where the cities and inner-ring suburbs aren’t enough of the population… yet.

      Now go look at the latest census maps for counties where populations are growing/shrinking. I claim this constitutes a serious demographic problem for the Republicans, whose policy proposals are oriented much more towards the outer suburbs and rural areas. “Drill, baby, drill,” is a good example. Residents of the rural and outer suburb areas don’t have a choice when it comes to transportation; mass transit doesn’t work and electric doesn’t have the range, so they need liquid-fueled personal transportation. And at least in my opinion, the Republicans are looking at problems down the road unless they can find policies that are better suited for the urban areas.

      I’ll be watching the Nebraska Senate race this year. The (surprise) Republican candidate is from one of the least populated areas of the state. I’ll be surprised if one of the main Democratic pitches isn’t “What does this rural person know about the problems of Omaha, Lincoln, and their suburbs, where a majority of the state population now lives?”Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        pish, we can make rails work out to wherever you please — DC has them running through multiple states. it’s the grocery store run what kills the rural/exurban folks.Report

        • Avatar Michael Cain says:

          And how many of the counties served by the Metro vote red consistently? Why hasn’t the Metro been extended out to counties that do vote red consistently? Population density and traffic patterns. Why doesn’t Chicago’s system extend to all those red counties downstate? Why is Denver’s (under construction) light rail stop, with one exception that I can recall, at the inner suburbs, which have become steadily bluer? All the same reason. There is a high degree of correlation between areas where useful mass transit is simply uneconomic and areas that vote Republican.

          About 25% of the US population is classified as “rural”, which if I remember the Census Bureau definition properly, means they live at least 25 miles from any metro area with a population of 25,000 or more. For these people, high-density housing and mass transit are not options. And they will consistently vote against any party that favors carbon taxes or impractical-for-them alternatives to liquid-fueled personal transportation. OTOH, that percentage is steadily shrinking, which is a long-term problem for the Republicans.Report

    • Avatar Ryan Noonan says:

      As I mentioned above, this is not exactly right. It’s close-ish, but California is a liberal state with a very conservative Republican Party, which is not what other highly-ideological states are like. For instance, Massachusetts (another heavily liberal state in the aggregate) has a functioning Republican Party because the Republicans there are moderate. The flip side is a state like Texas, which has a semi-functioning Democratic Party because the Democrats there are moderate. Having a state that trends in one direction without both parties being generally on that side of the fence is a recipe for one party to be a complete disaster.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck says:

        My point is the political-demographic makeup of the state, not the particular flavor of ideology. In the context of my comment, Pennsylvania is equal to California.Report

        • Avatar Ryan Noonan says:

          Sure, but I think it under-explains California. It’s true, as far as these things go, and is the case in almost every state in the Union that contains both urban and rural areas. I think California just ends up with this extra dollop of weirdness because they have one party that isn’t terribly interested in appealing to the median voter in the state.Report

          • Avatar Lyle says:

            If you look at maps of the vote in 2008 you find that there are really two Californias sharing one state, the coastal liberal area, and the Central Valley and the part of the state significantly north of the Bay Area that is Republican. The two areas have very different world views. Clearly on state wide races then you will have the coastal areas control.Report

            • Avatar Burt Likko says:

              I’d propose five Californias: that the urban areas of the Los Angeles megaplex are different than the urban areas of the Bay Area in their flavors of Democraticness; the Central Valley’s brand of conservatism is very different from that of the military-heavy exurbs and separate urban centers like San Diego; and once you get north of Sacramento it’s really South Oregon.

              The basic cleavage Lyle discusses can be seen in county maps of most close votes, like Prop. 8 or the 2010 Attorney General’s race.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                It’s certainly true that a big chunk of California Democrats vote that way because they think the Republican party only cares about white people. I think the LA basin is primed to give someone a nasty shock if they push the progressive viewpoint too far. Let’s not forget how Proposition 8 passed with a big majority of nonwhite voters.Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

                Actually, more in-depth analysis has shown that the Prop 8 vote support among minorities weren’t much different from the white population once church attendance was factored in.

                The myth of the “black vote” passing Prop 8 is just that, a myth.Report

  5. Avatar Scott E says:

    Burt, like you I filled out my California primary ballot over the last few days. However, I am hopeful that this system will help the state of politics in California.

    A hypothesis regarding what ails California politics is that, given the California’s predisposition to vote Democratic, most of the local elections for state assembly and senate have not been competitive. In the traditional system, the incumbent party’s candidate in the general election will almost certainly win. In the old primary system, the Democratic primary voters might select a candidate in the political “center” of Democrats and/or with Democratic organizational (union) backing who with then is effectively unopposed in the general election. The result is a very liberal (in the current American “social liberalism” meaning) government. Add the promiscuous proposition system and churning of representatives because of term limits in the state and you have a recipe for fiscal disaster.

    A theory about the open primary system is that it diminishes the importance of party affiliation, leading to more centrist candidates winning. A registered Republican in a typically Democratic district can vote for a Blue-Dog democrat to vote for in the primary… and if lucky, again in the General Election. I myself am using the primary as an opportunities to vote for who will run against the favorite. If this results in a general election with two Democrats, I say GREAT!…. may the pragmatic centrist win.

    As this experiment is just starting, we’ll see how it plays out.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      Scott, while I can see your hope, I remain pessimistic. In terms of tracking motivators of voter behavior, ideology-versus-pragmatism is secondary to name recognition, as far as I can tell. And the more crowded and confusing the field of candidates is, the more true that will become.

      At least as we’re seeing in the Senate primary, the jungle primary system is powerfully anti-competitive and pro-incumbent. Feinstein is polling at 51% and her nearest competitor, Hughes, is polling at 2%. Two percent. She has $6.6 million to run for re-election and her nearest competitor has $100K. No one can compete with her. This is not a competitive political race, it’s a laugher.

      Feinstein’s overwhelming advantage is not the result of her political skills or her status as a Blue Dog centrist type. Rather, it is because she’s the incumbent. Why should Feinstein bother to engage with anyone or any subject? And given that spectacle, why should someone like Jerry Brown or Kamala Harris, who are clearly not Blue Dogs, behave any differently? They, too, have entree into the mandarin class that holds political power.

      We’ll have more data if again someone like Meg Whitman or Carly Fiorina or Michael Huffington steps into the fray with a willingness to spend functionally unlimited amounts of personal wealth to buy sufficient name recognition so as to stand out from the crowd and attract voter attention. Even an ideologically motivated voter can’t vote ideologically if she doesn’t know who to vote for.

      The traditional closed primary system has flaws too, most notably too-extreme minority party candidates emerging from a selection process that emphasizes ideological purity as opposed to general-election centrist appeal. But that process does at least flesh out policy differences and expose them to public debate and discussion. The jungle primary seems to me to be a contest of pure name recognition.Report

      • Avatar Anderson says:

        But, as Simon mentions below, do you think the open primary will work as-advertised when there are candidates without the war chest/dominant name recognition like Feinstein? Maybe in House, state, or local elections? Those races have less money streaming in from the national scene and fewer “brand names.” Like Scott, I had a lot of hope for this open primary, coupled with the independent re-districting board. California has often been the breeding ground for new policy ideas, whether they be good, bad, or ugly, and this one seemed solid.Report

  6. Avatar James Hanley says:

    As much as I love California, their politics (as well as property values) is why I would never want to live there again.

    How did this jungle primary come about? Did state legislators actually vote for it (and if so, why?), or was it another initiative?

    I’m no expert on electoral systems, but I’ve studied them just enough to not see the value in this system at all. Burt notes the huge number of candidates, most of them unknown. This type of process incentivizes throwing your hat in the ring and hoping for lightning to strike (maybe my name will be selected to be at the top of the list, and the three people right below me will all share names with mass murderers and terrorists!). That makes it impossible to have the benefit Scott E. hopes for, of finding centrist candidates. It takes information about candidates to determine whether they’re centrist, and this system actually reduces voter information, which just seems like a damned bad idea.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      How did this jungle primary come about? Did state legislators actually vote for it (and if so, why?), or was it another initiative?

      It is the result of 2010’s Proposition 14.Report

      • Avatar Michelle says:

        More proof that the ballot initiative process run amok has become a plague on California politics.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:

          Exactly. When I first moved to California, I was thrilled with the direct democracy concept. Long before my 7 years there were up I had grown to despise almost everything about it. Badly written initiatives drawn up by abysmally amateurish would-be legislators, just as much specialized-interest influence as in legislative lawmaking, giving the state legislature breathing space to avoid dealing seriously with important issues (knowing the public would eventually do the job for them), and locking up the state’s budgeting process so it is functionally impossible to govern the budget, hence to govern the state.Report

    • Avatar Simon K says:

      It was an initiative, backed by Schwarzeneger and some of the good-government groups. The idea is to prevent the relatively left wing Democratic party and extremely right wing Republican party from filtering out reasonable candidates before the general election even happens. Combined with the new process for drawing district boundaries, the idea is to reduce the power of incumbency, not increase it.

      I don’t think a senatorial election is a terribly good example of how this will work out – its much more interesting to look at local elections where effective campaigning might get a Republican candidate, or a relatively unknown Democrat, through to the general. There’s basically no way anyone was ever going to win Feinstein’s seat, and everyone knows that. What Burt is seeing just reflects that reality.Report

    • Avatar Bad-ass Motherfisher says:

      I’ve often thought that the crazy excess of initiatives could be resolved by prohibiting paid signature-gathering to qualify the measures. Outside of my local Target, there are usually 1 or 2 paid signature people, each with 3 to 5 different initiative petitions they are gathering signatures for. And honestly, 90% of California inititives are some organization doing rent seeking.Report

  7. Avatar Stillwater says:

    (OT, Burt, and I apologize – but have you heard that the Montana rejection of CU is now working its way thru the courts? Apparently 22 other states are in the suit. More posts please!!)Report

  8. Avatar Dave Buck says:

    A bit off topic but, Autism Speaks is a “Controversial Charity”? We’ve gotten grant money from them to run a sweet pre-vocational, youth mentor program for older teens on the spectrum. I guess I need to do some digging and look at them more closely…unless you can point me to some specific controversy.Report

  9. Avatar Sean Smith says:

    Here is a link about what autism speaks actually does. http://www.examiner.com/article/why-autistic-people-don-t-like-autism-speaksReport

    • Avatar Dave Buck says:

      That history is disturbing. The 2008 990 article shows a horrible ratio of funds going to the right place. And, the vaccine waffling was disgusting to read.

      For what it’s worth, Autism Speaks 2010 990 shows $1.5 million given in community and individual grants, their ratio is getting up to 70% now (I’d like to see it higher still) and now Autism Speaks official position on vaccines is that vaccines do not cause autism and they recommend kids be vaccinated. For what it’s worth, our group got a sizable grant to do pre-vocational training with teens with autism by pairing them with typical developing peers as mentors. I suspect may other clinical folks got similar grants to do good works. So that should count for something.

      In fact, I found some satisfaction that some anti-vaccine nut jobs are angry at Autism Speaks…see their sad June 2011 rant here. http://vactruth.com/2011/06/17/83-reasons-to-question-autism-speaks-for-hiring-big-pharma-scientist/

      However, I’m still open for more data and recent facts on Autism Speaks. I don’t want to be a victim of confirmation bias and some pressure to seek only positive data on them because of their grant. I won’t every want to promote any organization that is not clearly stating the lack of any relation between vaccines and autism. (Huffington Post needs to get straight on this for example).Report

  10. Avatar Alan Scott says:

    As Simon K says, the seat is Feinstein’s. She’s have to murder a baby on national television in order to lose the election, whether California used the old primary system or the new one.

    I’m more interested in the down-ticket races. I voted for prop 14 with the hope that we’d get better candidates in the state congressional races. Too often, the candidates in general are extremist cliches, designed to appeal to the partisan primary voters instead of the whole electorate. Our state is in such crappy shape because every republican than manages to win can do no more or less than block the budget, and every democrat doesn’t need to be good at his job because the alternative is the ridiculous republican.

    As everyone gets a better feel for the new system, I’m expecting some R vs R and D vs D general elections leading to a less polarized state congress. (Though It’ll probably be 2014 before that happens in earnest. I think this year will be mostly business as usual while everyone figures stuff out).Report

  11. Avatar James Hanley says:

    She’s have to murder a baby on national television in order to lose the election

    What if it was on local public access TV?Report