Top-Two Primary Fails to Unpolarize California

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I’m very pro-closed party primaries. But some people disagree and they managed to pass a ballot initiative in California instituting what’s known as the Top-Two primary.

They created one big open primary where both parties’ candidates appear on all the primary ballots, and then voters select their top 2 choices. The top two vote-getters have to eat lunch together advance to the general election. The idea was that moderate candidates might fare better, since moderates from both parties could choose them, allowing them to sneak through the center.

While this is hardly the last word on the subject, this analysis of the first run in California from Doug AhlerJack Citrin, and Gabriel Lenz will disappoint the anti-polarization crowd:

Are these claims about the consequences of reform valid? To shed further light on the consequences of this reform, we conducted a statewide experiment before California’s June 2012 primaries. As a result of a popular referendum, these elections replaced the closed party primaries with an open ballot that presented voters, regardless of party, with the same list of candidates. The top two vote getters advanced to the general election, thus allowing for a choice between two contenders from the same party. In a study sponsored by the Institute of Government Studies at UC Berkeley, we randomly assigned 2839 registered voters in U.S. House districts where moderate candidates faced more extreme candidates to one of two conditions for electoral choice: (1) the open ballot that would be used in the actual 2012 primary, or (2) the closed primary ballot that earlier elections employed.

For advocates of the reform, the results of this survey experiment are disappointing. If the open ballot did indeed help moderate candidates, they should have won more votes in the open-ballot condition than in the closed-ballot condition. But as shown in the scatterplot below, we find no such evidence: Moderate candidates for the House of Representatives fared no better under the top-two primary than they would have in closed party primaries. The vertical axis plots how much better (or worse) candidates performed among participants randomly assigned to the top-two ballot, while the horizontal axis plots candidate moderateness on a seven-point scale. The results fail to show the upward-sloping trend that advocates of primary reform argue we should see.


This entry was posted in Miscellany.

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