Since the inception of California’s top-two primary, pundits have relished writing about both major parties eating their own.
Pundits, journalists and insiders alike bring up the possibility of Democrat-on-Democrat or Republican-on-Republican general elections in almost any seat that opens up. This assumes that Republican voters will be willing to strategically cast their ballots for the most moderate Democrat, and vice-versa.
Now, voters have a tough time bringing themselves to vote strategically even in presidential elections, so I’ve always found it unlikely that they’d vote strategically en masse in down-ballot primaries. I went ahead and ran the numbers on every top-two June legislative primary we had in California and found the conventional wisdom was lacking. Here are the four new rules to get you through a top-two primary.
1. Single-party runoffs are very uncommon.
General elections with two members of one party on the ballot are the political version of shark attacks. They only happen a few times per year, but each one gets so much media attention that they feel more common than they are. Who can forget Howard Berman versus Brad Sherman?
California voters still act in most races as if they’re not allowed to vote for members of the other party. With the exception of the most high profile campaigns — think campaigns with several million dollars spent on each side — there’s little-to-no evidence that voters will vote for the most moderate person in the other party if they have an option to vote for a scarecrow in their own party.
In fact, I found that 89 percent of California primaries that start off with at least one Republican and one Democrat on the ballot result in one Republican and one Democrat advancing to the general election.
For all the talk about single-party runoffs, you’d think they were an epidemic. It turns out they almost never happen.
2. If you’re the only candidate of your party on the ballot, you’re almost a lock for the general election.
Every year, a few hundred California political insiders make election predictions in Aroundthecapitol.com’s election contest. Every year, the same handful of individuals lap the field. If you look at what separates these super predictors from the pack, it’s that they know that an obscure, unfunded Republican in a deep blue district will still consolidate the lion’s share of the Republican vote.
Everybody else predicts the sexy Democrat-versus-Democrat runoff, or vice-versa in a red district. It happens almost every time. It’s almost as if we don’t believe people about their own party preferences.
In the past two cycles, more than 250 candidates in California have found themselves as the only candidate from their party in the primary, and 96 percent of them have punched their tickets to the general election. You’re sure not going to get those kinds of odds in Vegas.
3. Two simple rules of thumb predict nearly 90 percent of single-party runoffs.
The data wasn’t all bad news for consultants’ conventional wisdom. We found that 89 percent of California’s single-party runoff elections could be predicted by just two rules of thumb, which many consultants have long-suspected. If a district has enough candidates in one party, or a big enough registration advantage for one party, a single-party runoff becomes more likely.
What constitutes enough candidates? Well, 74 percent of all single-party runoffs come from primaries with at least three candidates of one party on the ballot. Famously, four Democrats ran against two Republicans in California’s 31st congressional district in 2012, resulting in a blue seat sending two Republicans to the general election.
How big does a party registration advantage need to be? Fifty-eight percent of single-party runoffs took place in the one-third of districts that leaned at least 20 points more Republican or 20 points more Democratic than the average district. If neither of these rules of thumb applies to your district, there’s less than a 3-percent chance you’ll face a member of your own party in the general election.
4. The most expensive and high profile campaigns may be able to overcome these rules.
There were only two exceptions to No. 2 in 2014: one was California’s 17th congressional district, which was the most expensive intra-party Congressional race in the country. The other was California’s 6th state Senate district — the most expensive intra-party state legislative race in the state. Both campaigns took place in highly informed districts: the former in parts of Silicon Valley and the latter in the state’s Capitol.
When a district is able to bend these rules of thumb, either large sums of money or very well-known candidates are typically involved.
The jungle primary is still new in California, and it has yet to be tested on a truly high-profile and contested statewide race. With a Senate race and a governor’s race coming up, we’ll be able to find out once and for all if enough money and media coverage can make Republican primary voters pull the lever for their “least objectionable Democrat” over their favorite Republican. With Donald Trump enjoying his moment in the sun, you can decide for yourself if that sounds like something that primary voters are likely to do.
Maclen Zilber is a campaign consultant at Shallman Communications, based out of Los Angeles. He has consulted on over eighty campaigns across the country at the local, state, and federal level.