After Hillary Clinton swept most of the Acela primaries on Tuesday, Bernie Sanders retrenched, laying off hundreds of staffers and turning his campaign’s focus to the June 7 California primary. The general response from Clinton supporters and political scribes was an eye-roll. Why is Bernie continuing with a doomed campaign, they wondered, wasting resources that could be used to help Democratic candidates at the congressional level? Why is he being so selfish when his “political revolution” is destined for failure?
In reality, the best thing Sanders can do for Democratic fortunes down-ballot is to compete vigorously in California. That’s because of the mixed-up way we do elections here in the Golden State.
California instituted a “top-two” primary after the passage of Proposition 14 in 2010. Under this system, all candidates for a particular election, be they Democrats or Republicans or whoever, appear on the same primary ballot. The top two finishers, regardless of party, advance to the general election.
It’s a sad fact of political life that the top of the ticket matters to voter participation in politics, especially in California, which doesn’t have a strong political culture. And voter interest has actually surged during the presidential primaries, though not how you might suspect. Local elections expert Paul Mitchell laid this out recently: From Jan. 1 to March 31 of this year, over 850,000 residents have registered to vote, disproportionately for the Democratic Party. Compared to 2012, Democratic pre-primary registrations jumped 185 percent, relative to 63 percent for Republicans. Mitchell even noticed a relationship between these new registrations, which can be done quickly online, and critical moments in the campaign, like Super Tuesday.
You can feel the interest in the Democratic race locally. This weekend, elections are being held for Clinton and Sanders delegates to the national convention, and my inbox is overflowing with requests from would-be delegates to come out to vote. Registrations can be done on-site at those delegate elections, meaning even more Democrats brought into the process.
But all of those new Democratic voters are far less likely to turn out if there’s no competitive presidential primary. We know there will be fierce competition on the Republican side, as Donald Trump tries to reach the threshold of 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination on the first ballot. And unlike the congressional races, the presidential primary is not “top-two.”
As Democracy for America Senior Campaign Manager Robert Cruickshank first pointed out, if a disproportionately Republican electorate turns out in California on June 7, it would wreak havoc in down-ticket races, where all parties appear on the same ballot. That means that competitive California races for the House — and there are at least nine, according to the Daily Kos election outlook — could produce some very odd winners advancing to the general election.
It has happened before. In 2012, Democrats thought they would easily win the 31st Congressional District, which leans Democratic. But a sleepy primary with nothing driving turnout on the Democratic side led to two Republicans making the runoff, shutting out Democratic possibilities for the general election.
With major competition atop the Republican ticket and none among the Democrats, it’s reasonable to expect more situations like that. In the 10th Congressional District, which Democrats have targeted, there are two Republicans and two Democrats running. The same is true in the similarly targeted 25th District. An open-seat race in the 24th District has a multitude of Democrats and Republicans on the ballot. And the aforementioned 31st District, where Democrat Pete Aguilar did break through in 2014, does have multiple Republican candidates, including Joe Baca, who formerly represented part of the district as a Democrat.
The potential for ballot confusion is high, especially if Republicans overwhelm Democrats in turnout. Given the thin margin for error for Democrats in retaking the House, any foul-up in those districts leading to no Democrat advancing to the general election would be devastating to their chances.
None of this should be construed as an endorsement for the top-two primary. I think it’s an abomination that disenfranchises voters and doesn’t produce the “moderate” legislators that its proponents claimed it would. It shouldn’t be the case that the vagaries of when the presidential nominating contests effectively end influences the down-ticket general election ballot. But this is the system that exists, and Democrats calling for a cleared field could seriously damage their opportunity to retake the House as a result.
Furthermore, all of those excited Democrats who registered to vote for the first time, including what Paul Mitchell describes as large numbers of Latinos, should have the opportunity to make their voice heard. That’s not just true from a democratic perspective, but because voting is like a muscle: If you don’t exercise it then it atrophies. Getting new voters in the habit of casting their ballots makes it more likely that they will continue to turn out in the future. The new registration surge in California can only shift the state electorate, and by extension the national electorate, if new voters turn out.
Sanders has taken criticism for failing to expand his political revolution, for failing to use his newfound power to organize for candidates that share his vision, for hording the money going to his second-place campaign instead of spreading it around where it’s needed. But the best use of that money, between now and June 7, is to focus on California. I’m not saying Sanders is doing that intentionally, but that’s the demonstrable effect. Anyone who says different doesn’t understand how politics work here.