Home > Applying Political Science, Faculty, Research > Prop. 14 and California’s Minor Parties

Prop. 14 and California’s Minor Parties

I’m working on a project about the impact of Prop. 14 on California‘s minor parties (American Independent, Green, Libertarian, and Peace and Freedom), and I thought I would get some of it up even though it is incomplete.[1]

The conventional wisdom is that by making California’s electoral system a majority-runoff system, where only the top two candidates appear on the general election ballot, California’s minor parties would have a much harder time (a) recruiting candidates to run for office and (b) maintaining their qualified ballot status. Richard Winger, of Ballot Access News, looking at the data for 2012, concludes that Prop. 14 has had exactly this effect: “Proposition 14 makes it virtually impossible for minor party members to participate in the general election, so many candidates decided not to file.”

In this post I want to examine this claim–that Prop. 14 will/has lead to fewer minor party candidates running for office. (I’ll have some thoughts on the second claim–it will be harder to maintain ballot status–in the future.) What I hope to show here is that (a) the number of minor party candidates in California has been declining for a while and that (b) almost all of the decline comes from the Libertarian Party.

If we look at the number of districts contested by minor parties in 2010 and 2012, then it appears that Prop. 14 has had an effect on minor party participation. The following table shows a significant drop-off in the number and percentage of districts contested by minor parties by legislative district type (Assembly, State Senate, and House of Representatives). In 2010, minor parties candidates ran in 39 percent of all California legislative districts. In 2012, these candidates ran in just 8 percent of the districts.

Pretty big effect, right? Well, as you could probably guess, no. It turns out that minor party participation in California elections has been declining for some time now. The figure below shows the percentage of each district type contested by minor parties stretching back to 2000. As is pretty clear, except for the 2010 elections, there has been a steady decline in minor party participation. In 2000, California’s minor parties contested every congressional district (CD in the figure) race, about 85 percent of the State Senate districts (SD), and about 75 percent of the Assembly districts (AD). Each successive year, with the exception of 2010, saw an erosion in those numbers.

If we break out each of California’s minor parties, it becomes clear that this decline is concentrated almost exclusively in California’s Libertarian Party. Most of California’s minor parties actually have very few candidates contesting elections each cycle. With the exception of the Natural Law Party, which disappeared from California elections after 2002, only the Libertarian Party has ever fielded a large slate of candidates. The American Independent Party usually only runs two or three candidates across all of California’s legislative districts per election (although in 2010 it had nine) and the Peace and Freedom Party and the Green Party each average about ten contests per election.

Moreover, as shown below, the decline in Libertarian participation is pretty consistent across the different district types. Each saw a slight up-tick in 2010, but the 2012 numbers are fairly good extrapolations of the 2000-2008 participation trends. You can draw a pretty straight, downward sloping line through each of these time-series.

I should note, too, that this decline is not a function of the number of Libertarian Party registrants, which (a) has averaged about 89,000 people over this period and (b) has increased slightly over the last two election cycles. Also, if the number of candidates contesting elections is a function of party registration numbers, then we ought to expect the American Independent Party, which has seven times as many registrants, to consistently run more candidates than the Libertarian Party. As shown in the previous graph, it clearly does not.

Again, the main points to take away from all of these graphs is that the decline in minor party participation in California elections (a) began well before Prop. 14 was passed–and therefore can’t be the result of Prop. 14–and (b) is largely concentrated in the Libertarian Party.

So why the overall decline in the Libertarian Party and why did it experience a small up-tick in 2010? I am currently exploring these issues, but in their book Three’s a Crowd, political scientists Ronald B. Rapoport and Walter J. Stone offer some potential insight into the (mostly) ebb and flow of the party’s ability to contest elections. Rapoport and Stone argue for a “push-pull” model of minor party success. Minor parties succeed when voters are pushed away from the major parties because they are (a) dissatisfied either with its policies or its candidates or (b) when they do not perceive enough distinction between the Democratic and Republican parties. At the same time, voters are pulled toward minor parties when they view the parties as positive alternatives to the two major parties. Minor parties disappear over time, though, as the major parties co-opt their issue positions in order to win elections.

Using this model, then, we might guess that would-be candidates choose to run as Libertarians when they are dissatisfied with the Republican Party and when the Libertarian Party offers a viable, and perhaps exciting alternative. As the California Republican Party, and the Republican Party more generally, has moved to the right on fiscal issues–co-opting policy positions of the Libertarian Party–perhaps would-be candidates have become more satisfied with the options it presents. Thus the decline over time.

The up-tick is likely due to the Tea Party movement, which was at its peak in 2010. A significant part of the movement was dissatisfaction with the Republican Party establishment, as was a general commitment to fiscal conservatism. Perhaps in such an environment the Libertarian Party offered would-be candidates an attractive alternative to running as a Republican. Now that the Tea Party is a major (if not the dominant) faction within the Republican Party, the Libertarian Party is not as attractive to would-be candidates.


[1] Yes, I know the Americans Elect party/nonparty has qualified for the California ballot, but they are/were only interested in the presidential contest. These other parties have (a) been around much longer and (b) have contested a number of legislative races. Also, the Reform Party and the Natural Law Party were qualified parties in California at the beginning of the 2000’s. They have since disappeared from politics, however.

  1. Matt Jarvis
    June 8, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    First thought: I’d like the data to go back in time further, if only because the 2002 districts are supposed to be a bipartisan gerrymander, and that could also have led to lower rates of fielding candidates.
    Second thoughts: what else causes 3rd party candidacies? I would think that, building on Minnesota, success breeds success. So, is there a good state to use as a comparison to CA? (Professional legislature, big enough state, rules that weaken the 2 parties, etc). If the decline in CA is sui generis, that muddies the waters some. But, if that trendline is similar in simlar(ish) states, then the lack of an effect in 2012 is something.

    • Keith Smith
      June 8, 2012 at 4:32 pm

      I’ve actually looked for material on what causes third party candidacies, or at least when minor party candidates emerge, but I can’t find anything for offices other than the presidency. There’s just not s lot of work on minor parties across U.S. states because there aren’t that many successful parties. I am making use of some comparative party-systems work, but given how different the U.S. system is, I’m not getting a lot of purchase so far.

      I can go a little further back in time for all the district types and much further back for Congress and the State Senate, but my impression is that 2000-20002 represents a modern high for minor party participation. The trend line was up-ish until 2000, then it started down again. I’ll have to think about the effect of the 2000 redistricting and it’s effects if the trend line is down from there.

      Do you at least buy the larger argument that minor party participation has been on the decline for a decade, so Prop. 14 can’t be the primary cause?

      • Matt Jarvis
        June 10, 2012 at 7:33 pm

        Rather, I’d say that maturation is a valid threat to causal validity. The evidence that it’s Prop 14 is very weak in light of your data.
        Wanting the history is mostly just curiosity, but it’s also nice for the districts argument (how I wish California voters would have given us our natural experiments at DIFFERENT times!)
        The comparative states thing, though, I think could be really useful.

  2. February 12, 2014 at 4:57 am

    While I do think Proposition 14 and its implementing legislation has had a negative effect on recruiting potentional candidates, especially statewide candidates where all the alternative parties have had candidates in nearly every race, the lack of a level playing field has also contributed to the slower erosion over the years. Most single member districts are safe one party districts. I would say that election laws, private money, and the corporate media has prevented the development of a multi party system. Proposition 14 just makes it harder to recruit candidates.

    • February 12, 2014 at 9:00 am

      I absolutely agree that the single-member, plurality district elections that California had before Prop. 14 effectively stacked the deck against minor parties.

      It’s interesting, though, that there has been an ebb and flow in the number of minor party candidates over time. New parties (e.g., Natural Law and Reform) emerge, attract a lot of attention and candidates, and then fade away as a function of little electoral success, shifting public priorities, or being co-opted by one of the major parties. Parties like yours and the Greens (though not so much the Libertarians), I think long ago recognized that the path to relevance is at the local level (i.e., municipalities, counties, and unions) and have to varying degrees focused their efforts there.

      I actually have a whole paper expanding on some of the ideas in this post that I would be happy to send you. It was published in the Journal of California Politics and Policy earlier this year, but I’ve been revising it with Richard Winger’s help. Send me an email (ksmith4@pacific.edu), and I’ll get you a copy.

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