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Prop. 14 and California’s Minor Parties

So after not posting anything new for a while, you get a couple posts one right after the other.

My article, “Proposition 14 and California’s Minor Parties: A Case Study of Electoral Reform and Party Response,” is now available from the California Journal of Politics and Policy here (gated unfortunately; here’s the version I will be presenting at MPSA next month). Here’s the abstract:

In 2010, California voters enacted Proposition 14, the Top Two Candidates Open Primary Act, which changed California’s electoral system from single-member, plurality district elections to a top two (majority) runoff system. Although literature in comparative politics and formal theory suggests this change should help third parties in California, almost 80% fewer minor-party candidates filed for office in 2012 than in 2010. Indeed, 2012 saw the smallest number of minor-party candidates in California since 1966. Employing a mixed-methods approach, this paper examines different explanations for the decline in minor-party candidacies. Although most observers argue that Proposition 14 directly discouraged minor-party candidates from filing for office (because they likely would not make the runoff ballot), I argue that the decline results from three other factors: (1) a long-run decline in the California Libertarian Party, (2) a legislature-driven increase in the filing fee required from minor-party candidates, and, most importantly, (3) party elites foregoing candidate recruitment in 2012.

If their publishing schedule looks like last year’s, it will be in the upcoming June issue.

So, How Did the Minor Party and No Preference Candidates Do?

One consequence of Proposition 14 is that there were almost no legislative contests this year featuring minor-party candidates. As I previously argued, Proposition 14 combined with the legislature’s increase in filing fees essentially ended the idea of a third-party candidacy in California. As a result, just three minor-party candidates (all from the Peace and Freedom Party) and five No Party Preference (NPP) candidates appeared on the November ballot.

How did these eight candidates do against their major-party opposition? With two notable exceptions (discussed below), they performed as well as past candidates in similar situations– i.e., not well at all. Over the last five election cycles, there have been 31 contests where a major-party candidate (Democratic or Republican) faced just one independent or minor-party candidate. In every case, the major-party candidate won, usually by a lot. The following table shows the average vote share for the major-party candidate in these contests:

The average vote share for major-party candidates was a little lower in 2012 than in prior years. Whereas the average winning vote share was about 80% previously, in 2012 these candidates still averaged just 75% of the vote across the eight contests.

The following figure shows the average vote share for each of these 31 candidates by election cycle. The large standard deviations for 2008 and 2012 in Table 1 are the result of three contests, all against independent or NPP candidates. In 2008, Abel Maldonado (R), who was instrumental in giving California Proposition 14, faced a strong independent challenger, Jim Fitzgerald. Maldonado won with 63% of the vote. This year, Henry Waxman (D) beat Bill Bloomfield (NPP) with just 53% of the vote. Also in 2012, incumbent Democratic Assemblyman James Paul Fong beat Chad Walsh (NPP) with 62% of the vote. Pull these three contests out, and 2008 and 2012 look just like 2006 in Table 1.

So, to sum up. Did independents (NPP) and minor-party candidates do any better under the top two system than under California’s previous system? Not really. The Fong and Waxman contests are worth some additional exploration in this regard, but even with these contests the major party candidates won by quite a lot on average.

Update [11/16]: The above graph doesn’t appropriately convey the futility of candidates running against otherwise unopposed major-party candidates. Here’s another take:

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