Bungle In The Jungle?

[ Posted Thursday, March 15th, 2018 – 16:39 UTC ]

There are times when a prognostication I've made turns out to be true, much to my horror. This might just be one of them, and if it turns out to be, I certainly won't be the only California voter to feel that way. Because regaining control of the House of Representatives this November might just wind up being out of reach for Democrats due to California's wacky "top-two jungle primary" system. The only thing I didn't foresee was that Republicans might actually try to actively game the system to their advantage.

I wrote about the possibility in general terms last August. My article began by pointing out the importance of California to the nationwide Democratic effort to take back the House: "There are seven House districts in California that Hillary Clinton won that are still represented by Republicans in the House. To successfully retake the House, Democrats will likely have to win most (if not all) of these races." Now, this was before the big blue wave had appeared on the horizon, so perhaps this is now overstating California's importance to that effort. It now seems like Democrats could actually win control of the House even if they don't win a single one of these California races. But it certainly would be a harder road to travel for Democrats without California's low-hanging fruit. Later in the article, I offered up a hypothetical example of how the jungle primary system could torpedo Democratic chances:

But just because [the jungle primary] is designed to give the majority party a big boost (sometimes a virtual monopoly on the general election ballot) doesn't mean it will always work out that way. Consider a hypothetical case of a House district in California that has a whole passel of folks running. By the time the primary rolls around, no one candidate really stands out. Let's say it's a traditionally Democratic district, with a majority of Democratic voters. Three Democrats run, with roughly equal support. But only two Republican candidates run, also with roughly equal support. The primary results are announced:

  • Democratic candidate Jones wins 17 percent of the vote
  • Democratic candidate Perez wins 18 percent
  • Democratic candidate Nguyen wins 19 percent
  • Republican candidate Smith wins 20 percent
  • Republican candidate Griswold wins 21 percent
  • Minor candidates win 5 percent

The two Republicans then move on to the general election ballot, which will have no Democrats at all. Even though Democrats just won 54 percent of the total vote, to the Republicans' 41 percent.

This may seem far-fetched, but it only has to happen a handful of times next year to possibly put the House out of reach for Democrats. I'm guessing that Democrats within this hypothetical district probably wouldn't be too happy with the reassurance that the "moderate" Republican will probably win the race, when they will have no opportunity to vote for a Democrat in November. While the system is designed to boost the chances of the majority party in the district, by such a statistical fluke it could wind up doing exactly the opposite. I don't believe it has happened yet, but we've only had a few jungle elections so far. At some point, it seems almost inevitable that this will occur somewhere in the state at some point. Election flukes do happen (see: Trump, Donald).

I went on to warn, towards the end of the article: "Democrats might just experience this disenfranchisement in one or more of the House races next year, as evidenced above. If this turns out to be the margin of taking back the House, Democrats will be hopping mad, too."

I wrote about purely hypothetical cases. But as the midterm elections approach, it now appears that this may actually become reality, and not just through chance. Veteran California political writer Dan Walters recently outlined, in the San Jose Mercury News, what has been happening in the districts that Democrats need to target:

Republicans are exploiting the Democratic Party's abject lack of discipline and gaming California's top-two primary system to potentially block Democratic challengers from reaching the November ballot.

In several of the most vulnerable districts with large numbers of potential Democratic challengers, well-known Republicans have also filed their candidacies. Under the state's primary election system, the top two finishers in June face each other in November regardless of any party affiliation. With so many Democrats on the June ballot, the chances for Republican vs. Republican runoffs in those districts are high.

Take, for instance, Orange County Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who has faced sharp criticism for his apparent affection for Russian President Vladimir Putin and who represents one of seven GOP-held districts in California that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Rohrabacher has 15 challengers, including eight Democrats. But the one drawing the most attention is Scott Baugh, a former Republican assemblyman and former county GOP chairman.

Baugh insists that his bid to dislodge Rohrabacher is genuine, saying the congressman "has lost focus on what's important." But he's also a longtime friend of Rohrabacher and the best known challenger so could easily wind up as the congressman's only foe in November. If so, the seat would be guaranteed to remain in GOP hands.

Something similar is happening several hundred miles to the north, in a San Joaquin Valley district represented by Turlock Republican Jeff Denham that also went for Clinton in 2016.

Republican Ted Howze, a former Turlock city councilman and longtime Denham supporter, filed to run against him, insisting, "I'm running on my own merits, not to be somebody's shadow candidate."

But of course, like Baugh, he would never admit to being a friendly foe, even if it were true.

Democrats had entertained high hopes of unseating San Diego County Republican Darrell Issa, but he decided not to run for re-election. Five Democrats are running, but as in other targeted districts, there are two well-known Republicans, Assemblyman Rocky Chavez and Diane Harkey, a member of the state Board of Equalization. So chances are fairly good for another Republican vs. Republican runoff in November.

Another San Diego Congressman, Duncan Hunter, is under investigation for ethics lapses, and several Democrats have filed to challenge him. But so has Republican Bill Wells, the mayor of El Cajon. In one of the state's most conservative districts, it's possible that another all-Republican runoff will result.

Democrats know that what's happening could thwart their hopes of picking up four or five congressional seats in California, thereby severely reducing their chances of retaking Congress.

Walters points out that the state Democratic Party has apparently woken up to the dangers of the top-two primary system, as evidence by one of their recent tweets: "How worried is @CAGOP about getting walloped in the House? They're pulling out all the stops to game the horrible top-two primary. Don't be fooled. It's a scam to try and shut Dems out."

It will probably take a disastrous election result or two for Democrats to realize that the top-two jungle primary is undemocratic and punishes voters who show up for the general election but fail to vote in the primary election. If that's what it takes to change back to a normal intraparty primary system, then so be it. I've argued with Democrats before about the jungle primary, which (in their eyes) is wonderful because it guarantees closer outcomes and moderate candidates. What they're really saying, of course, is: "We think it's great that there will only be two Democrats on the ballot for all statewide races such as governor and U.S. senator!" although they're usually too polite to come out and admit it. But when that coin gets flipped, and when Republicans engineer the exact opposite result -- leaving Democrats high and dry in the general election -- then perhaps they'll change their minds and fight to change the system back to a more traditional (and fairer) one.

In other words (in Ian Anderson's words, to be precise), it may take a bungle in the jungle before anything changes for the better. I just hope that this doesn't mean the difference between taking back the House and seeing it remain in Republican control, because then it won't just be a state-level bungle, but one with national implications for the next two years.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


24 Comments on “Bungle In The Jungle?”

  1. [1] 
    Paula wrote:

    Well that sucks.

  2. [2] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    Not surprised you didn't mention it (it is possible you didn't know), but in the 34th district (remember how I previously pointed out this district and the top two primary in the recent special election) the Green Party candidate (Kenneth Mejia) recently sent me an email that there are only three candidates on the ballot in this Democratic district so it possible that the Democrat might have to go up against a Green in the general election.

    That would be even worse for the Democratic Party than having two Republicans, especially if the Green Party candidate won the general election.

    But beyond that -Really?!?!

    Are you going to claim that the Democrats have any right to complain about the top two primary that might give the Republicans an advantage instead of them even though it was designed to give Both CMPs an advantage over third parties and independents?

    Are you really going to say that going back to the previous way of dividing the spoils between the CMPs with the previous primary system that was designed to give the CMPs an advantage over third parties and independents would be in any way fairer or in any way fair?

    Fuck that.

    Keep the open primary part of the top two system where all citizens can vote for any candidate for an office, regardless of party. Any party that gets 10% of the primary vote for all their candidates gets a slot on the ballot for the top vote getter in their party. Independents have to get the 10% on their own.

    This prevent the top two quandries and in a worst case scenario ends up with nine candidates on a ballot, barring a 10 way tie.

    Of course, this would only be good if you wanted a fair electoral system and not one rigged to benefit the CMPs.

  3. [3] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    But as long as we're in the Jungle:

    "Hunting tigers out in India,
    out in, out in, out in India.

    They bite, they scratch,
    they make an awful fuss.
    It's no use stroking them
    and saying puss, puss, puss

    Hunting tigers out in India,
    out in, out in, out in India."

    Hunting Tigers Out in India
    -Bonzo Dog Band

  4. [4] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    i guess that's the law of the jungle

  5. [5] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Don Harris -

    That's interesting about the 34th. I'd love to see a Green on the general election ballot!

    As for the rest of what I think, I invite you to read my previous articles. Both the link in this one above, as well as one I really should have worked in as well, from slightly earlier:

    I would favor discrete primaries for each party, but also open primaries -- you show up to vote, they ask you what party's ballot you want, and you choose right there on the spot. Works for me.

    But I also want every registered party on the general election ballot -- I don't care how many of them there are, personally.

    I think everyone should have the right to vote for a candidate from their own party in the general election. The only way a jungle primary would work for me is if the "primary" was in Nov, on election day. Then if nobody got 50+1 vote, then there'd be a runoff (Louisiana system, essentially). But that's the only way I could support it. The way it's set up now sucks.


  6. [6] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    And, for those wondering about the Ian Anderson reference:

    Walking through forests of palm tree apartments
    Scoff at the monkeys who live in their dark tents
    Down by the waterhole
    Drunk every Friday
    Eating their nuts
    Saving their raisins for Sunday.
    Lions and tigers
    Who wait in the shadows
    They're fast but they're lazy, and sleep in green meadows
    -Bungle In The Jungle, Jethro Tull



  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    Maybe if Democrats run more Pro-Life, Pro-Gun candidates in California like they did in PA, they can foil the evil Republicans and their evil machinations.. :D

    There is only one thing more enjoyable than seeing Republicans hoisted by their own Picard..

    It's seeing Democrats hoisted by THEIR own Picard.. :D

    -Bungle In The Jungle, Jethro Tull

    "I tell you one thing that really drives me nuts, is people who think that Jethro Tull is just a person in a band."
    "Who's Jethro Tull?"



  8. [8] 
    Michale wrote:
  9. [9] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    Why do citizens have to declare a party to vote in the system that works for you? It sure doesn't work for me.

    What if I am not in a party, and I want to vote for a Democrat for congressman, a Republican for Senator and a third party or independent for president or governor?

    Why should I only be able to support one in the primaries?

    If the Democrats and Republicans can't win without rigging the system then do they really deserve to win?

    Don't you believe enough in the message of the Democratic party to subject it to a fair system?

    As for the 50% plus one, if you are going for 50% to make sure the winning candidate has majority support then that 50% should be 50% of eligible voters to achieve a true majority, not 50% of those that vote. Otherwise there is no validity to the 50% to achieve a majority argument. This is especially true in a top two primary system as many voters that don't want to vote for the top two in the general election run-off might stay home if they can't register or don't know they can register a write in vote against the top two.

  10. [10] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    As for parties that want their primary to not be open to all citizens they should have to run and pay for their own primary. But if they want to qualify for the general election ballot based on primary votes they should have to participate in the open primary. If they run their own primary then they have to petition to get on the general election ballot as third parties and independent candidates have to do now in places where they are not allowed to participate in a primary.

  11. [11] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    Not too many comments on "Aftershocks From the Lambquake".

    I can't believe you didn't see my comments on that article.

    This must mean you purposely chose to not respond to my comments and answer my questions.


    Are they not legitimate statements and questions? If not, why not?

    Or do you just not have any legitimate response that could counter my argument?

  12. [12] 
    John M wrote:

    Democratic candidate Jones wins 17 percent of the vote
    Democratic candidate Perez wins 18 percent
    Democratic candidate Nguyen wins 19 percent
    Republican candidate Smith wins 20 percent
    Republican candidate Griswold wins 21 percent
    Minor candidates win 5 percent

    This scenario depends heavily on Democratic candidates splitting the Democratic vote almost equally. The same with Republicans and the Republican vote. Not impossible, BUT

    A more likely outcome might be

    Democratic candidate Jones wins 12 percent of the vote
    Democratic candidate Perez wins 36 percent
    Democratic candidate Nguyen wins 9 percent
    Republican candidate Smith wins 11 percent
    Republican candidate Griswold wins 29 percent
    Minor candidates win 3 percent

  13. [13] 
    TheStig wrote:

    I don't see how Jungle Primaries are a fundamental game changer. I'm assuming the California Democratic Party is incorporated under CA laws. Corporations have the right to control who can use their name. They can also control who gets access to their funding and promotional mechanisms.

    It seems to me, the CA Democratic Party should be able sort this Jungle Threat out internally...thru party conventions, or corporate board meetings. In any given race, the Democratic Party Inc. declares which candidate can use the Democratic name and Democratic machinery. Any other "Democrat" can go it alone, as new independent party, or more likely, as a write in. The voters can easily sort out the spoilers, which are lurking in most contests where there is no jungle.

    The Jungle Primaries have changed the rules of the game, but it seems to me the Jungle Game is recognizably the same old ball game. The team manager just has to react to new do potential Democratic candidates. Discipline. That's why parties came into being.

    Am I missing something here? It wouldn't be the first time...and if I have, I'm sure somebody will let me know about it :).

  14. [14] 
    TheStig wrote:

    It seems to me the Republicans not actually in the WH are quietly abandoning their public stance of "NO RUSSIAN MEDDLING" and "NO COLLUSION" lines of Trump defense. Could the psychological impact of PA-18 be the reason?

  15. [15] 
    Michale wrote:

    It seems to me the Republicans not actually in the WH are quietly abandoning their public stance of "NO RUSSIAN MEDDLING" and "NO COLLUSION" lines of Trump defense.

    Any facts to support that claim??


    Of course not..

  16. [16] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    One solution to this would be for Democratic party leaders to unite behind just one candidate and..oh,..


  17. [17] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    They're pulling out all the stops to game the horrible top-two primary.

    Duh. You'd think that in a state that boasts more game designers than any other that someone would mention the first rule of game design: there's always some flaw that will be exploited by gamers. Always. Even when you try very hard to design it otherwise.

    This is why I snicker every time Michale says that there's no way the Russians managed to influence the outcome of the 2016 election or physically change any votes.

    My answer: there's no way that you could know that for sure, any more than you can be sure that the Korean kid you're playing against online hasn't figured a way to exploit the game to beat you.

    It happens.

    The best game designers have developed strategies for leveling the playing field, even when exploits are rampant. I'm sure the leaders of California could find a few of those guys....probably sitting next to them at their next fundraiser.

  18. [18] 
    neilm wrote:

    As a corollary to this, the active gerrymandering that the Republicans (and to a lesser extent the Democrats) indulged in in 2010 may come back to bite them.

    Gerrymandering increases the likelihood of a better turn around by packing opposite voters into a few districts, but results in a more even spread of your own voters, thus in a normal year you get an unfair number of first-past-the-post wins.

    As the Republicans may find out in November, there is a but in the system in that it creates fat tails - if there is a "wave" election it can overcome the leveled bias and cause a sweep of all districts to the opposition.

    That might be a nice way to end the decade of absurd gerrymandering the Democrats have had to put up with.

  19. [19] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    It is doubtful that the game designers sitting next to the leaders of California at a fundraiser will be discussing anything other than how to game the system in their favor.

    Until one of them says "But that would be unfair and we should be trying to level the playing field."

    This is, of course, followed by nearly half an hour of hysterical laughter.

  20. [20] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    It is doubtful that the game designers sitting next to the leaders of California at a fundraiser will be discussing anything other than how to game the system in their favor.

    My, such a cynic.

  21. [21] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    And yet, when it comes to One Demand, I am, according to popular opinion here, too much of an optimist.

    I think that my cynicism and optimism are being applied appropriately in both situations.

  22. [22] 
    Kick wrote:


    And yet, when it comes to One Demand, I am, according to popular opinion here, too much of an optimist.

    Optimist?! *LOL*

  23. [23] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    So I am not too optimistic about what One Demand can accomplish?

    You couldn't possibly be saying that One Demand can accomplish what I say it can accomplish which is what you would have to be saying if I am not too optimistic about what One Demand can accomplish.

  24. [24] 
    taztunes wrote:

    Bear in mind that the Democratic Party never asked for the Top-Two Primary that California now uses, and didn't support it until the US Senate race to replace Barbara Boxer had two Democrats running.

    This was something foisted on us by Arnold Schwarzenegger as part of his agenda to water down the power of the party primary to select the more progressive Democrat and create a more centrist, corporate-friendly legislature. In Blue districts that are bound to elect a Democrat no matter what, a corporate-centrist Democrat could make the run-off in addition to the progressive who would, previously, win the party primary. That candidate would attract not only centrist Democratic votes but also Republicans who are the minority in the district and have a path to victory.

    In that this is the system we have, I relish the thought of 2 Democrats each heading to November in the US Senate and Governor's races, because this might dampen Republican enthusiasm for even bothering to come out, thus making it easier for the Dems to take back Congress this year. But that presupposes their being a Democrat in each run-off.

    The best fix for this would be Ranked-Choice voting. Each voter would be able to rank up to three choices. Those who voted for the candidate getting the least number of votes would have their second choice added to that candidates' tally until two candidates remain. Progressives could vote for Doug Applegate first, and if he didn't have the votes to continue, choose Levin next so as to make sure that at least one Democrat would advance to November's run-off.

    Or we could vote to get rid of the top-two primary altogether.

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