Welcome to the Jungle
California's horrible budget squeeze was resolved this week with a compromise measure that included a pledge to put on the 2010 ballot a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would replace partisan primaries with an open-primary system in which the top two vote-getters would square off in the general election, regardless of party. The proposal, pushed for by a moderate Republican state senator named Abel Maldonado, is a top priority for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who sits in the Sacramento governor's mansion today only because he didn't have to navigate a Republican primary on his way to the office. (Ah-nuld won a special recall election in 2003, when Golden State voters retired Gray Davis in the wake of a budget crisis that was actually much less severe than what the state just endured.)
The notion behind the reform is that partisan politics in California, and probably most everywhere else as well, tend to favor candidates who are more extreme in their ideology than most voters--simply because in a Democratic primary there's usually more incentive to run further to the left, and amongst Republicans the pressure tilts rightward. Nate Silver, who wrote (unfavorably) about this "jungle primary" proposal yesterday, has a couple good graphs that illustrate the point. Thus you wind up with a California House of Representatives delegation populated with the likes of Linda Sanchez and Lois Capps at the far extremes of the left, and Darryl Issa and various Duncan Hunters toward the rightward fringe. See this National Journal table for a clearer sense of how Cali's Democrats are further left, and Republicans further right, than is the norm: on a scale of 0 to 100 measuring liberalism in 2007 votes, just four of California's 53 Representatives fall between the numbers of 30 and 70 (and two of those are pretty much at 30 and 70 exactly). The same dynamic evidently plays out in state elections--which is a big reason why the California budget mess got so bad.
Early in Mayor Bloomberg's term, he tried to push for non-partisan elections in New York City. At the time, most of us regarded this as a sop to the Republicans to whom the mayor was then trying to show some bona fides; the measure was overwhelmingly defeated. (I'm pretty sure I voted against it personally.) The opposing argument at the time was that by removing party affiliations from the ballot, the measure would take from low-information voters a vital piece of information about a candidate's likely policy positions: you might not know what City Council candidate Jerome Shibotsky stands for, but if he has a D or an R after his name, that gives some clue. My understanding of the California proposal, however, is that party affiliation would still appear on the ballot: it's just that, in a strong Democratic district, the general election would more likely pit a moderate Democrat against a more liberal Democrat. If nothing else, that empowers the Republican voters in that district to support the former rather than waste their votes on the gay-hating gun nut who would be lucky to crack 20 percent.
Silver seems to dislike the proposal because he thinks it would lead to legislatures full of squishy centrists--and admittedly, life in the "Land of a Thousand Liebermans" is a pretty horrifying prospect. I don't agree. For one thing, his take both implies that ideology is the only determinant of who wins elections, and totally rules out the public-education/political-persuasion aspect through which a superior candidate can convince voters over the course of a campaign, and/or term in office. As an example, consider Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980: at the start of that general election campaign, Carter was pretty clearly closer to the the true middle of the electorate than was Reagan, and the polls had the race close or leaning to Carter through most of the summer and early fall. But Reagan was a better candidate, and obviously had far greater powers of persuasion... or, as some Dems of the time had it, obfuscation. That, combined with the lousy condition of the country, ultimately pushed enough voters toward the conservative Republican that he won in a walk.
Maybe more to the point, I think that the "jungle" system would at least produce officials more respectful of other views, rather than the current endless blood feud style of politics that characterizes the House. And more to Silver's point, a strong case probably could be made that for the Senate especially, this would come closer to the Founders' vision for the upper house than our current party-driven system. California's proposal seems unlikely to pass--both parties will oppose it strongly (if you're a far-left Democrat or far-right Republican, the interest you have in common is that the current system gives you a lot more cover), as will their supporting interest groups that get such solid representation by the more extreme office-holders. If nothing else, the campaign should be a great (final?) test of Schwarzenegger's own powers of persuasion.