California politics shaken, not stirred by electoral changes

1:50 PM, Jun 8, 2012   |    comments
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The dynamics and rules may have changed in Tuesday's statewide primary, but the political status quo looks to have emerged fairly unscathed.

That's the early assessment from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California -- though with so many ballots yet to be counted, the picture admittedly hasn't yet completely come into focus.

Nonetheless, PPIC's quick glance offers some fascinating stats for political junkies... as well as a cautionary tale for anyone who expects any single change billed as "reform" to fix what many think is wrong with the electoral system.

The conclusion from researchers Eric McGhee and Daniel Krimm:

"All incumbents who ran this year advanced to the fall campaign, and all but four finished in first place. Likewise, 101 of 113 non-incumbent candidates endorsed by the major parties advanced. "

That's an impressive scorecard for the powers that be.

Tuesday's primary offered a fascinating glimpse at the intersection of two separate electoral changes:  the first legislative and congressional maps drawn by the state's citizens redistricting panel, established by voters through 2008's Proposition 11 and 2010's Proposition 20, and the top-two primary system, established by voters through 2010's Proposition 14.

McGhee and Krimm found that the average political incumbent in this election had a district that was 45 percent new territory.  That no doubt contributed to the high number of open, non-incumbent seats: nine open races for the U.S. House of Representatives (the most since 1992) and 35 open races for the state Assembly.  Only the state Senate's nine open seats was "within typical bounds," write the authors.

But for the incumbents that stuck around, it wasn't always a cakewalk to victory on Tuesday, and some of the fall contests could produce a different result.  The PPIC report found that 42 percent of incumbents faced a challenger from within their party, compared to an average of just 18 percent over the past decade.

Researchers also conclude that the outcome on Election Day was, in general, much tighter than years past:

"Today," they write, "in 59 percent of the races, one candidate has already received more than 50 percent of the vote. This number would also have been larger in the past."

But think about that.  Whereas 59 percent of the races being lopsided may sound non-competitive to the rest of the world, that's actually an improvement in California politics from years past.

And the researchers have also confirmed what many of us have been noting since the results came in Tuesday night: independent ('no party preference') candidates tanked.  There were 37 such candidates on the June ballot across the state.  Only five advanced to the fall election -- but all in districts that are considered safely Democratic or Republican.


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