Forecasters Should Resist the Urge to Downgrade California Dems’ Chances

Pitting all parties’ candidates against one another in Tuesday’s oddly structured primary won’t be a good predictor of November’s outcome, history shows.

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 02: A voter places her ballot into a ballot box after voting for the midterm elections at Los Angeles County Lifeguard headquarters on November 2, 2010 in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. Former eBay CEO and Republican candidate Meg Whitman is running against California Attorney General and Democratic candidate Jerry Brown for the Governor's seat while U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) is in a tight race against Republican senatorial candidate and former head of Hewlett-Packard Carly Fiorina. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
National Journal
Scott Bland
June 2, 2014, 4:01 p.m.

Think all-party primar­ies tell you something in­struct­ive about how one can­did­ate might fare against an­oth­er in the gen­er­al elec­tion? Think again.

Cer­tainly, it’s an in­triguing idea. States that pit of­fice-seekers from op­pos­ing parties against one an­oth­er on the bal­lot should, lo­gic­ally, test how those can­did­ates might do in Novem­ber.

But past all-party primar­ies in Cali­for­nia — like the one Tues­day night — have proved a poor pre­dict­or of what’s go­ing to hap­pen on Elec­tion Day, and that’s be­cause low turnout skews what might oth­er­wise be a pretty power­ful in­dic­at­or.

Al­most across the board in con­gres­sion­al primar­ies, these early votes serve as a high-wa­ter mark for Re­pub­lic­ans and a baseline for Demo­crats, whose per­form­ance im­proved by 7 per­cent­age points on av­er­age between the primary and gen­er­al elec­tions in 2012.

That means if Demo­crat­ic House can­did­ates do poorly in the Golden State on Tues­day, polit­ic­al odds­makers should res­ist the urge to down­grade their chances for the fall, as some fore­casters did after the 2012 primary.

Con­sider the data. In 2012, Cali­for­nia’s first year run­ning the new top-two primary, all but two House Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates im­proved his or her party’s vote share between June and Novem­ber. Only five Re­pub­lic­ans man­aged the same feat. (This ana­lys­is totals the vote share of all Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates in the primar­ies, and it leaves out dis­tricts that didn’t pit a Demo­crat against a Re­pub­lic­an in the gen­er­al.)

That con­tin­ued a pat­tern seen when Cali­for­nia used an all-party primary setup in 1998 and 2000. There were 83 House races in those two years where one party im­proved its stand­ing between the primary and the gen­er­al. Demo­crats did it 66 times, com­pared to 17 for Re­pub­lic­ans. Demo­crats did 4 points bet­ter on av­er­age in the 1998 gen­er­al elec­tion and 2 points bet­ter in the 2000 gen­er­al elec­tion.

Over­all, across 1998, 2000, and 2012, Demo­crats only failed to im­prove their per­form­ance between primary and gen­er­al in 18 per­cent of Cali­for­nia con­gres­sion­al races.

Cer­tainly, these data points un­der­score a con­cern for Demo­crats too: the party’s re­li­ance on in­con­sist­ent voters to boost its can­did­ates to vic­tory.

Many of the biggest jumps in 2012 came in heav­ily His­pan­ic dis­tricts. Demo­crat­ic Rep. Mark Takano, who rep­res­ents River­side, won less than 46 per­cent of the primary vote and then romped to vic­tory with 59 per­cent in the gen­er­al elec­tion. Rep. Raul Ruiz, the Demo­crat from the neigh­bor­ing Palm Springs-based dis­trict, won 42 per­cent in the primary and then un­seated Re­pub­lic­an Mary Bono Mack with 53 per­cent in Novem­ber.

Part of the reas­on is that His­pan­ic turnout craters in Cali­for­nia’s primar­ies. Ac­cord­ing to fig­ures col­lec­ted by the Pub­lic Policy In­sti­tute of Cali­for­nia, the Latino share of the vote was more than 7 per­cent­age points high­er in Novem­ber 2012 than June 2012, a re­peat of what happened in 2008. In 2010, a midterm year — when non­white turnout is typ­ic­ally lower — the Latino vote share still jumped over 5 points for the gen­er­al elec­tion that fall. The same PPIC re­port also shows that young voters, an­oth­er key Demo­crat­ic con­stitu­ency, are un­der­rep­res­en­ted in the state’s primar­ies. Mean­while, the Cali­for­nia voter data firm Polit­ic­al Data Inc. has found His­pan­ic early-vot­ing rates this year lag­ging past years’ rates for primar­ies.

Both parties have pickup op­por­tun­it­ies scattered throughout Cali­for­nia’s 53 con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts. Re­pub­lic­ans are run­ning hard at four fresh­man Demo­crats in par­tic­u­lar: Reps. Ruiz, Ami Be­ra, Ju­lia Brown­ley, and Scott Peters. Mean­while, Demo­crats have fo­cused on two Re­pub­lic­an-held seats, one be­long­ing to Rep. Gary Miller, who is end­ing his con­gres­sion­al ca­reer, and the oth­er be­long­ing to Rep. Dav­id Valadao, who is just start­ing his.

Demo­crats rightly worry about their heavy re­li­ance on less-than-re­li­able voters as they try to pro­tect House and Sen­ate seats this fall. But the situ­ation isn’t as bad as the head-to-head nature of Cali­for­nia’s primar­ies makes it look.

Zach Co­hen con­trib­uted to this art­icle

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