California Dreaming

New Primary System Unlikely to Reduce Partisan Polarization and Gridlock in Golden State


California voters recently approved a ballot initiative that would drastically alter the Golden State’s election system. Instead of the traditional two-stage electoral process with separate Democratic and Republican primaries followed by a general election between the major party nominees along with any independent or third party candidates, the new system would feature an open primary in which all candidates would run together and the top two finishers regardless of party would face each other in the general election. Thus the general election could involve a Democrat and a Republican, two Democrats or two Republicans. Theoretically a third party or independent candidate could make it into the runoff, but that would be rather unlikely.

Backers of the “top two” primary system, including California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, argue that the reformed electoral process will encourage candidates to adopt more moderate positions in order to appeal to a broader primary electorate and that this will, in turn, make it easier to achieve bipartisan compromise and avoid the gridlock that has paralyzed the state in recent years.

But how realistic is the claim that the new primary system will reduce partisan polarization and gridlock? The assumption underlying this claim is that polarization is largely a product of the current election rules. Thus, according to reform advocates, by changing the rules you can reduce polarization and encourage bipartisan compromise. The fundamental problem with this belief, however, is that polarization is not an artificial by-product of California’s current election rules. It is a result of real divisions within the California electorate and changing the rules will do nothing to reduce those divisions.

The most important source of polarization in California politics is the ideological divide between supporters of the two major parties. Figure 1 shows the trend in the average liberal-conservative self-placement of Democratic and Republican voters in California and the nation since the 1970s. In both California and the nation, ideological polarization increased considerably over this time period, but it has always been greater in California. That’s because while California Republicans are as conservative as Republicans in the rest of the country, California Democrats are considerably more liberal than Democrats in the rest of the country.

The ideological divide between the two parties in California is exacerbated by the fact that supporters of each party are concentrated in different geographic regions of the state. The largest metropolitan areas of the state, Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area, are overwhelmingly Democratic while the few pockets of Republican strength are found in some of the outer suburban areas of southern California as well as small towns and rural sections of the state.

Contrary to popular belief, gerrymandering has had very little to do with the increase in one-party domination of California’s congressional and state legislative districts in recent years. California’s 58 counties, whose boundaries have not changed, have also exhibited a trend toward one-party domination. Thus, in the 1976 presidential election, the difference between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford was less than 10 percentage points in 45 of counties with two-thirds of the state’s voters and more than 20 points in only two counties with less than 10 percent of the state’s voters. In contrast, in the 2008 presidential election, the difference between Barack Obama and John McCain was less than 10 percentage points in only 12 counties with less than a quarter of the state’s voters and more than 20 points in 25 counties with more than half of the state’s voters.

The “top two” primary system is not going to change the realities of partisan polarization and one-party domination of large areas of California. Given the sharp ideological divide between Democratic and Republican voters, liberal Democrats will continue to dominate elections in Democratic regions of the state and conservative Republicans will continue to dominate elections in Republican regions of the state.

That’s exactly what has happened in the one state that has implemented a “top two” primary system. In Washington, which began using the new system in 2008, the electoral consequences were minimal. In all 9 of the state’s congressional districts the open primary produced a general election runoff between the Democratic or Republican incumbent and a challenger from the opposing party and in all 9 general election contests the incumbent was victorious. And based on the winners’ voting records in the 111th Congress, the new primary system has had no effect on partisan polarization—the gap between the state’s Democratic and Republican representatives was just as large in the current Congress as it was in the previous one. Expect the same results in California.