Bring on the Top-Two Bloodbath

Now that the June 5 first-round of legislative races is done, we move to the heart of the new top-two primary system: the second round.

Also known as: the bloodbath.

A second-round bloodbath is what top-two primary was designed for. 

In November's general elections, we'll get a small number of races -- perhaps 16 in Assembly races and 2 in state senate races in legislative races for Assembly and Senate seats -- between two candidates of the same party.

Creating such two-of-the-same-party races is what the top-two's supporters wanted.

The theory is that with two candidates of the same party, the more moderate candidate would win -- because the candidates would have to appeal to independents and voters from the other party.

I suspect we're about to see the trouble with the theory.

And that trouble will come in the form of a two-by-four to the heads of your local legislative candidates.

Ask yourself: how will, for example, two Democrats appeal to independents and Republicans in very Democratic districts?

By changing their platforms or offering more moderate ideas? It's unlikely, since Democratic candidates won't want to risk losing the support of their fellow Democrats in districts dominated by that party.

No, instead, they'll appeal not with ideas but with personal attacks. Get the backing of independents and Republicans by making your opponent look bad. Because if you agree on the issues, the natural place to go to make distinctions is the personal.

As Timm Herdt of the Ventura County Star points out in this column, this is the way that primary elections used to work. There's no reason to think the new dynamic will be any different.

So the reform of top-two may give us this change: a bloodbath of personal attacks by candidates against each other.

The second-round fighting comes on top of a first-round that was a different kind of disaster -- no one showed up and no one cared -- with record low turnout, little political competition, and no broader discussion of ideas to get the state out of its mess. 

As your blogger has written here and elsewhere, this new system of elections is very much like the old system of elections, only slight worse.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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