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How California's 'Jungle Primary' System Works


Now, we're going to delve further into California's top-two primary system that Domenico just talked about, sometimes referred to as the jungle primary. University of Southern California political scientist Christian Grose is working on a book about this top-two primary system, and I asked him how the system came about.

CHRISTIAN GROSE: The reform was implemented in 2012. It was pushed by a group of people led by the governor at the time, Arnold Schwarzenegger. And a number of groups supported the reform with the idea that the top-two primary system would allow voters who are no-party affiliation to participate in primaries. The reforms would also allow the potential for moderation or less extremity among candidates who had to run in a general election and appeal to voters who might be Republican, Democrat and independent.

SHAPIRO: OK. So if the argument was that less extreme politicians would do better in this system, since the system was implemented in 2012, has that proven to be the case?

GROSE: So there is evidence in California in the legislature that the state legislature is less polarized than it was before 2012. There's also evidence, especially among Democrats in the state assembly and the state Senate, that they are less extreme than they were in 2012. And the other thing I want to mention is people might think, well, California, more moderate, that doesn't sound like it squares with what I understand about California. The key is it's less extreme. So there are still Democrats that are getting elected in most statewide offices and most legislative districts, but those Democrats are just a little bit less liberal than the otherwise very liberal candidates who might have won in a different primary system.

SHAPIRO: California is not the only state with this system. How common is it?

GROSE: Yeah, so it's fairly uncommon, though it's becoming more common. Louisiana has a system that's very similar where the top two people advance to a general election if no one gets 50 percent of the vote. The state of Washington has this system that's pretty much the same as California. And then the state of Nebraska has the same system for its state legislature but not for federal offices.

SHAPIRO: Looking at today, do you think Democrats are right to worry about getting shut out?

GROSE: I don't think Democrats should be that worried. I think it's a bit overblown. I think part of the issue is that the Democratic Party operatives don't like the fact that they have to spend so much money in the primary. And that's separate from the empirical reality that the number of seats the Democrats will not be on the general election ballot is going to be pretty low.

SHAPIRO: The national party did spend millions of dollars to try to prevent this from happening.

GROSE: We'll see what happens. But just empirically in the last several elections, there've typically been around seven or eight same-party contest in the general election. This year, because there's so many candidates in a handful of these races, that's where some of the fears are coming from. But I just think the chances in all of the districts is super low. Yeah, there might be one district that has two Democrats, but we'll see. It's really up to the parties at this stage in the primary to coordinate and endorse candidates.

SHAPIRO: It's funny. Even though this is your area of expertise and you're writing a book about it, the takeaway message that I'm getting from you is relax, everybody. It's not that big a deal.

GROSE: So I think it's a big deal, but people need to relax on the competitive election part of it. So there's, you know, six or seven congressional districts that are very competitive, and I would say relax. There might be one or two that have same-party general elections. It's not the end of the world. Doug Jones, a Democrat, won...

SHAPIRO: In Alabama.

GROSE: ...In a different primary system, and voters there overwhelmingly favor Republicans, and no one's going crazy about the Alabama primary system. So I think it's just everyone should probably step back and relax. Note, you know, the benefits that come from the top-two system and then note some of the differences of the top-two system. I think where people should get more excited or even less relaxed would be in these very one-party districts, right? So if you're a voter who lives in Los Angeles in a very Democratic district, the chances of you having a competitive election for your congressional district in November is so low. But in the top two, there is a chance that a serious Democrat could challenge another Democrat, and you have a competitive race to choose from.

SHAPIRO: Christian Grose, thanks for talking through this with us.

GROSE: Thanks.

SHAPIRO: He teaches political science at the University of Southern California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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