WA-04: Live Example of Top-two Primaries and Extreme Candidates

Chances are good that Oregon voters are about to pass Measure 90 and switch to a single-ballot (aka “top-two”) primary election format.  This means that all voters who participate in the primary choose a candidate from one list, instead of a list determined by a voter’s party registration. Only the top two primary finishers contest the general election, regardless of their party affiliation.

Oregon would be the fourth single-ballot primary state, joining Washington, California and Louisiana. Voters here have considered the idea before, and most recently turned down a similar proposal in 2008, but thanks to a late signature push, and some out-of-state funding, proponents get another shot. My sense is that Oregon voters will eventually pass some kind of single-ballot proposal, if not this year.

I’m a skeptic of top-two primaries, and I oppose Measure 90.   In particular, I don’t buy into the proponents’ faith that this system will elevate the prospects of sensible, compromise-minded politicians.

Proponents argue that independent voters in primaries will favor moderate candidates, and that competition in general elections will reduce primary election threats from party fringes. But this hope is hypothetical, and some recent research by political scientists Douglas Ahler, Jack Citrin, and Gabriel Lenz shows that voters struggle to differentiate ideological extremists from moderates in experiments using the single ballot format.

Primary elections are usually low information and low participation events, and there is no evidence this proposal will change things.  California’s 2014 primary set record lows. As Measure 90 opponent spokesman Dan Meek reminded Portland’s City Club last week, Louisiana is the one state with a long track record of this system, and a state that elevates David Duke into a top-two runoff is probably not a good model for promoting centrism and moderation.

I buy the proponents’ argument that the state should not force voters to make a public declaration of party membership to participate in a public election. That principle may justify passing Measure 90, but the expectation of less polarization and extremism does not.

Proponents don’t have much data to support their argument about moderation, but Washington and California aren’t generating more useful examples.  As I noted last month, Washington’s 4th congressional district race could be illuminating for both sides. The seat is open, and two Republicans emerged as finalists, capturing a combined 57% of the primary vote. The district supports Republicans but also has nearly 1/3 Latino residents. President Obama won 39% of the vote in 2012, and the retiring incumbent won his last election by a 2-1 margin. In other words, the district is reliably red, but has a measurable Democratic minority.

So the race offers two opportunities for proponents of single-ballot primaries.  First, as promised, the general election will be contested seriously. No Democrat will appear on the ballot, but there is a discernible contrast between Republican establishment favorite Dan Newhouse and tea partier Clint Didier.

Second, and more importantly, Democratic voters (especially Latino voters) could emerge as the kingmakers. The district includes enough Democrats to provide a decisive, winning coalition for the Republican who best appeals to them. This effect was visible in the Mississippi Senate primary race earlier this year, when Thad Cochran was able to win the Republican primary by appealing to African-American Democrats willing to cross over. The winning Republican will presumably need some help from Democratic voters.

Presumably. Certainly, there seems to be no love lost between Didier and Newhouse, who until recently was the subject of a lawsuit filed by the Didier campaign. Newhouse has prioritized immigration reform, backed by the district’s important agricultural interests.  These positions will be more attractive to Latino voters than Didier’s doctrinaire Tea Party positions.  The Newhouse campaign seems better financed and highly competitive.

But Didier is a Tea Party celebrity: he is a two-time Super Bowl winner with a visible footprint in central Washington Tea Party politics for several years. He has been forced to walk back statements that seemed to oppose the very existence of Social Security and Medicare, and runs with Sarah Palin’s endorsement. Interestingly, the NRA supports Newhouse, but Didier is formidable.

So the race is competitive, but what do we mean by that? Are the candidates genuinely competing for centrist voters on the basis of policy? If their competitive appeal is celebrity and character driven, it’s hard to make the case that either candidate is reaching to accommodate Democratic policy positions.

And what if Didier actually wins? The latest polling reports a statistical tie, and a Didier victory is conceivable. A district with an enormous bloc of Latino voters may end up electing a Tea Party candidate who released this video.

The district will elect a very conservative Republican, no matter what else happens, and despite reformers hopes, that person will be accountable to Republican party leadership. But the top-two primary format is supposed to diminish the prospects of candidates of extremist candidates like Clint Didier. Let’s see if those hope are realized.