Mar 30, 2011

CA: the Top Two Primary and Third Party Strategy

From my article this week at CAIVN:
The first special primary election for a Congressional office under California’s top two open primary system has been scheduled for May 17th . . . if no candidates withdraw from the race or are struck from the ballot, voters in the district will have a wide array of candidates to chose from in the primary: five Democrats, six Republicans, five candidates designated as having “no party preference,” one Libertarian, and one Peace and Freedom Party candidate.  Observers predict that, due to the high number of candidates in the race, no one will win an outright majority.  The top two vote-getters in the May primary will proceed to the special general election scheduled for July 12th.

The partisan breakdown of registered voters in the Democratic-leaning district is reflective of the state as a whole.  Of the district’s nearly 350,000 registered voters, 45% are Democrats, 27% are Republicans, 22% decline to state a party preference, and the remainder are registered with third parties.  Given this fact, it appears likely that this will be the first instance in which two candidates from the same party face-off in a special general election.

Yet, it is safe to say that no one really knows what will result from the first such election under the top two open primary system, or any other for that matter.  It substantially changes the strategic calculus for parties and candidates alike. Under the old system, the conventional wisdom was that candidates should play to the party’s base in the primary and pivot toward the center for the general election.  In the top two open primary, candidates compete with all the other candidates in the race in addition to those of their own party while appealing to voters regardless of their party affiliation.

Let’s assume, for the moment, that all five Democratic candidates in the current race were competitive among Democratic voters, and that all six Republicans were equally favorable to GOP voters.  It is possible that no Democrat would receive more than 9% of the vote and that no Republican would garner even 5%.  If an Independent or third party candidate in such a race had the backing of just one in ten voters, he or she would be assured a place on the general election ballot.  The diluting effect of multiple candidates from both major parties thus provides a potential strategic opening to Independent and third party candidates . . .
Read the rest.

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