Before it was implemented seven years ago, many California consultants predicted the state’s top-two primary system would be a boon to electoral competition. Some even called it a “goldmine” for West Coast-based practitioners.
Now, after having worked through four primary cycles with the system, several consultants told C&E it’s failed to live up to expectations.
“The California top-two primary is a fraud that was sold as reform,” said Douglas Herman, whose firm, The Strategy Group, worked with an IE backing Democrat Gavin Newsom's gubernatorial run. “It has been confusing for voters, easier for special interests to manipulate and helps to drive down turnout due to same party runoffs in general elections.”
In a traditional jungle primary, like the one Louisiana uses, top finishers can avoid a runoff if they get 50-percent plus-1 on primary night. But in California, the top-two vote getters regardless of party advance to the November general — even if the first-place finisher breaks 50 percent.
Without the ability to win outright, it presents an opportunity for meddling by party bosses, according to Brian Ross Adams, a Democratic digital consultant working for 20 candidates across the state this cycle.
“Top two locks out third parties and encourages political party bosses to meddle in campaigns and reduce the choices of voters,” Adams said. “Voters need to be making these decisions. Additionally, the top two is bad for anyone who wants to get money out of politics.”
Rob Stutzman, a GOP communications consultant, sees it differently. “The system is designed to decentralize power from the parties,” he said. “The top-two system means that there is no such thing as a ‘safe seat’ based sole only voter registration advantage for a party.”
Eric Hogensen, a Democratic mail consultant who works with local and statewide candidates in California, likes the intra-party competition fostered by the system. He said it works great for either party — if their candidates finish first and second.
“But it doesn't represent the will of the voters very well if two candidates from the same party make it through the primary just because too many candidates [from] the other party decided to run at the same time."
That was the concern for Democratic practitioners working the race for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s Orange County seat. Despite a field of eight Democrats, an independent, a libertarian and five Republicans — not counting the incumbent — the party was able to get Harley Rouda into the general to face the Republican incumbent.
Hogensen isn’t alone in valuing the intra-party competition. Adriel Hampton, who did email work for Delaine Eastin’s gubernatorial campaign, likes seeing partisans “face off on the issues.”
He pointed to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) facing state Sen. Kevin de Leon (D) in November as one example.
“It also allows third-party and independent candidates to face off with the Democrats and Republicans, as we see with” former state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, a former Republican turned independent running for his old job against state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D).
“California voting is far from broken, but we still have a lot to learn,” said Hampton. “And voters need more education on same-day registration and the new absentee voting laws.”
Still, other practitioners say that top two encourages campaigns to play to extremes and that ultimately ardent partisans are who emerges from the primary, despite California’s no-party-preference voter group being the state’s second largest.
It also presents consultants with added challenges — particularly when it comes to polling.
“Compared to a closed Democratic primary, in the top two you need to spend more time and resources to identify voters most likely to vote for your candidate, across political parties,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a Democratic pollster who worked on former L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s gubernatorial run.
That resource drain can extend through November, she added.
“In districts that are strongly partisan, in a closed primary the election is essentially over after the primary. In the top two, you can end up running against the same person of your own party twice, once in the primary and again in the runoff,” said Kapolczynski. “That diverts resources from donors and allies that could be spent competing in swing districts.”
Practitioners aren’t all complaints, though. Some offered solutions to improve the top-two system. Jennifer Rindahl, who served as campaign manager for Delaine Eastin, who finished sixth in the gubernatorial primary on Tuesday, said changes to the paper ballot are necessary.
“It’s extraordinarily easy to get on the ballot,” she said, noting there were 27 candidates running for governor this cycle, which took up two pages.
“I don’t have a solution to that. I don’t want it to be a factor of money, but increasing the number of signatures might eliminate the people who put there name up as a ‘ha, ha.’”
She also suggested that candidates who are former office holders should be allowed to note that title. Antonio Villaraigosa, who finished third behind GOP nominee John Cox, saw his standing in lead-up polls drop after he was no longer identified as former mayor of Los Angeles. “As soon as he lost his title — he lost like 8 points,” said Rindah. Villaraigosa used his three words to identify as “Public Policy Advisor.” Eastin, the first woman elected California state superintendent of public instruction, had a similar handicap.
“That rule should be changed,” Rindahl said of the three-word cap. “That might be all they read about a candidate.”
This article has been updated since first published.