How Not to Interpret Tonight’s Primary Results

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif.
©2014 Richard A. Bloom
Scott Bland
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Scott Bland
June 3, 2014, 7:45 a.m.

Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA-52) could per­form an odd trick over the next few months: lose his primary but win the gen­er­al elec­tion. How? Cali­for­nia’s all-party primary of­fers a tempt­ing op­por­tun­ity to com­pare can­did­ates ahead of the gen­er­al elec­tion, but the Golden State has a track re­cord of spit­ting out very dif­fer­ent res­ults in June and Novem­ber.

— In 2012, nearly every Demo­crat­ic House can­did­ate matched against a Re­pub­lic­an in Cali­for­nia im­proved on their party’s primary vote share in the gen­er­al elec­tion. (See the res­ults in graph­ic­al form here.) That in­cludes 8 dis­tricts, like Rep. Mark Takano‘s (D), where Demo­crats got less than half of the primary vote but went on to win the gen­er­al. Takano got 59% in CA-41 after he and an­oth­er Demo­crat com­bined for just 46% in the primary — lead­ing some fore­casters in DC and Cali­for­nia to down­grade Takano’s chances after he won the nom­in­a­tion.

— The 2012 res­ults con­firm the trend from Cali­for­nia’s pre­vi­ous two all-party primar­ies, in 1998 and 2000. In those years, Demo­crats im­proved their stand­ing in 66 House races between primary and gen­er­al, while Re­pub­lic­ans only did it 17 times — mostly by mar­gin­al amounts in seats that were safely Demo­crat­ic.

— Young people and es­pe­cially Lati­nos are far less likely to turn out in Cali­for­nia’s primar­ies, push­ing the res­ults away from what they look like with a full elect­or­ate in the fall. It’s the same ef­fect that hurts Demo­crat­ic per­form­ance in midterms versus pres­id­en­tial elec­tions.

That’s not to say Cali­for­nia Dems like Peters shouldn’t be wor­ried about Novem­ber; he and oth­ers will have tough races. But no one should use Tues­day’s primary res­ults to write them off. Even though they match up po­ten­tial op­pon­ents early on, all-party primar­ies are not as use­ful for com­par­ing can­did­ates as they seem.

— Scott Bland

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