The wild Californian primary system

Yesterday was primary election day in California. David Dayen and Ryan Grim analyze the results and argue that progressives had a good outcome, despite fears that the unusual system in that state might lead to a disaster.

With all precincts reporting, [Katie] Porter, a Sen. Elizabeth Warren protégé invested with the hopes of the progressive movement, ended with 19,453 votes. It was enough, putting her roughly 2,600 ahead of her main Democratic challenger David Min.

Min, a former Sen. Chuck Schumer staffer, Center for American Progress fellow, and assistant professor at Porter’s school, UC Irvine, had the backing of the state party and the New Democrats, a Wall Street-friendly bloc that supplied 27 of the 33 House Democratic votes in favor of the recent bank deregulation bill. Porter was the only House candidate endorsed by Warren, her former teacher and co-author.

Min, meanwhile, was hesitant to embrace “Medicare for All” and ran a slashing race attacking Porter’s credentials. Porter ran on battling big banks, expanding Social Security, reversing the Trump tax cuts, and establishing “Medicare for All” — and she won.

THE NEW DEMOCRATS suffered another defeat in a race that pitted the two camps of the party against each other in San Diego’s 50th District. Ammar Campa-Najjar, who ran as a progressive with the backing of Justice Democrats, PCCC, and DFA, beat Josh Butner, endorsed by the New Democrats and backed by the Wall Street-friendly Rep. Joe Crowley, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, who is facing his own challenge from the left back home in the Bronx and Queens from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

The way that California conducts primaries is quite different from other states in that in 2010, voters passed Proposition 14 that did away with primaries based on parties and had a single primary in which the top two candidates, whatever party they were from, would then compete in the election. These ‘jungle primaries’ (as they came to be called) were an attempt to end hyper-partisanship but had unintended consequences, as Bob Moser explains.

If you decided to sleep like a regular human being on Tuesday night, rather than stay up to watch MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki hyperventilate into the wee hours over the results of California’s “jungle primary,” here’s what you missed in two words: Money won. Huge, obscene, record-shattering, Mark Zuckerberg-sized piles of money won. Center-left Democrats had the biggest stacks of the stuff, and they fared best. Ho-hum. Another day in the death spiral of American democracy.

The ingredients all seemed to be there, especially in a gaggle of U.S. House races where Republicans are clinging to seats in districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. California has seven of them, and they’re crucial to the Democrats’ national effort to regain a House majority and, presumably, get rolling on impeachment early next year. But there was a hitch: So many Democrats wanted to run, and so many did run in three of those swing districts, that there was a serious chance the candidates would slice up the vote so finely that two Republicans would end up on the ballot in November and dash the Democrats’ hopes.

If you’re a Democrat who chooses to skip over the gory details, the outcome in California on Tuesday was heartening: Democrats can still retake the House in November, and they’re now one small step closer. But if you’re a small-d “democrat,” the way it happened was powerfully depressing. Even in the state that’s tried harder – albeit foolishly at times – than any to achieve “direct democracy,” that lovely dream grows more distant, more impossible and unimaginable, with every money-soaked election cycle.

The much feared outcome, that if many candidates from the same party run they will split the votes so badly that none of them make the top two, could be avoided by allowing for preferential voting. That most obvious of improvements is one that the two major party establishments oppose because that would weaken their power. Dayen and Grim discuss how that system helped in San Francisco.

The establishment was also dealt a blow in San Francisco, where business-friendly candidate London Breed came out on top in the first round of voting. But the city uses a ranked-choice system, in which voters rank candidates on their ballot instead of voting for just one. If no one gets a majority of votes in the first round, next-preference votes are counted until a candidate gets most of the votes. The left had split its votes between Mark Leno and Jane Kim, giving Breed a lead with 36 percent to Leno’s 26 percent and Kim’s 21.5 percent in the first tally. Without ranked-choice voting, that would have been the end of it, and Breed would have been declared the victor. But with ranked-choice votes, the bulk of Kim’s support shifted to Leno, putting him on top.

Dayen and Grim also looked at good outcomes in races elsewhere.

Progressives beat back the establishment in New Mexico, where a Native American woman defeated an Albuquerque prosecutor with backing from No Labels, a coalition of ultrawealthy donors who work to tip Democratic primaries to the right.

In northern New Mexico, the Working Families Party’s top recruit for the night, Susan Herrera, pulled off a landslide upset in a state legislative race that the local press called “the end of a political era.” The WFP spent more than $60,000 on the race, and she knocked off 25-year incumbent Rep. Debbie Rodella in an area that is solidly Democratic but thought to be socially conservative.

So all in all, not a bad day for progressives.


  1. jrkrideau says

    How long were you in the USA before you got a grasp on the US electorial system?

    It is so different from the Canadian system that I have never grasped the primaries in particular. Reading about the California ‘jungle primaries’ leaves me crouched in a corner whimpering.

  2. Mano Singham says


    Being a political junkie, I got the general idea fairly quickly, though the fact that each state can sets its rules makes it impossible to fully understand it.

  3. jrkrideau says

    @ 2 Mano

    hough the fact that each state can sets its rules makes it impossible to fully understand it

    Sounds like trying to explain Canadian timezones plus daylight savings time to someone from Western Europe. I, once, heard an interview on Radio Netherlands where a Canadian tried. I was in great pain I was laughing so hard.

  4. anat says

    Washington also uses a top-2 primary system. That’s how in my congressional district we had 2 Democrats on the 2016 November ballot -- because it is a deep blue (indigo?) district. OTOH for some state positions we ended up with 2 Republicans, not because the state has a Republican majority but because the Democratic vote was split multiple ways whereas the Republican vote went to 2 candidates.

    Ranked Choice Voting is the best way to overcome the disadvantages of top-2 while still having competitive elections in deep one-party districts.

  5. jrkrideau says

    Ranked Choice Voting is the best way to overcome the disadvantages of top-2 while still having competitive elections in deep one-party districts.

  6. jrkrideau says

    We are having a provincial election here in Ontario today.

    I was listening the the local CBC station in Ottawa this afternoon. They had a little program on one of the local drug programs that works out of a homeless-shelter.

    One of the counsellors was spending most of his day helping homeless clients complete paper work to vote and then accompanying them around the corner to the poll to vouch for them.

    It appears that about 40 homeless clients had been helped to vote at that poll.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *