Making Sense of the Primary Election Results

Well, the election is over, and the  results are in.  What do they mean?  A lot of things.  Lets start with some big lessons:   

One key lesson is that money still talks; but money, by itself, isn’t always enough.  Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorini won their respective contests by landslides, and a large part of the reason is that they buried their opponents with huge personal campaign contributions.  Whitman’s was the more egregious example, even though both she and her major opponent were both multi-millionaires who threw more  of their personal resources into their campaigns than 99.99% of Californians even have.  That didn’t appear to bother Republican voters.  It remains to be seen if such lavish spending of personal resources will alienate independent voters.  (I think one can safely assume that the number of Democrats who’ll vote for a self-proclaimed conservative Republican is vanishingly small.)   

On the other hand, the “spend your opponent to death” strategy didn’t work for either PG&E or Mercury Insurance, both of which tried and failed to buy passage of a corporate-sponsored ballot measure.  In each case, though, they did come close (within five points) to getting their corporate perspective incorporated into California law.  What’s also interesting is the distribution of votes.  In both cases, it was a coalition of voters, primarily in coastal and urban areas, that defeated the measure.  Here, for example, is a link to a map on the Secretary of State’s website showing the county-by-county distribution of votes for Prop. 16:   

http://vote.sos.ca.gov/maps/prop16.htm   

I think several factors were at work.  One, urban voters are more sophisticated and less easily taken in by the simplistic arguments used in these corporate campaigns.  They’re also more skeptical of whether their interests are aligned with corporate interests — i.e., “I know what in it for you, the corporate sponsor, but what’s in it for me, the voter and citizen?”  Also important is that the coastal and urban areas tend to be more liberal and accepting of government.  Both PG&E and Mercury aimed part of their campaigns at public distrust of government.  PG&E, in particular, argued that the people can’t trust government with the money needed to run a public power operation.  That met a receptive audience in “Red State” California, but not in California’s even larger “Blue State” population.  I suspect that in a November election, when urban turnout is higher, the result would have been more lopsided against the two measures.   

Despite the skepticism of corporate-funded campaigns, however, California voters were not ready to allow public financing of election campaigns.  Prop. 15 failed decisively, although not quite by a landslide.  The vote distribution here is particularly interesting.  Here’s how the map looked:   

County-by-county map of Prop 15 results

County-by-county map of Prop 15 results

Here’s a link to the Secretary of State’s webpage, which allows you to see the actual county-by-county voter totals:  http://vote.sos.ca.gov/maps/prop15.htm   

Most Bay Area counties voted “yes”; but the rest of the state (including LA) voted “no”.  What’s this mean?  The Bay Area counties tend to be the most liberal, with the highest percentage of Democratic registration in the state.  They also tend to have some of  the most highly educated voters.  We’ll have to wait for detailed exit polls for a more precise analysis, but my suspicion is that the rationale for Prop. 15 — that public financing would allow better control on campaign spending and reduce the influence of big money on elections — didn’t get through to the public.   Also, especially in hard economic times, many people were probably averse to allowing government to spend money on financing political campaigns, even if that money would come from taxing lobbyists — certainly not a popular group.  This measure, unlike Props 16 and 17, might have done better in a November general election, with its higher turnout and more liberal electorate.   

Finally, Proposition 14, the open primary measure, won quite handily, although again not by a landslide.  The county-by county vote distribution was less lopsided, however, than for Prop. 15.  Only two counties voted against Prop. 14 — San Francisco and Orange.  (A few other counties: Alameda, LA, Santa Cruz, and — surprisingly — Fresno and Tulare, were close, with the measure winning by margins of less than four percentage points.)  SF and Orange represent, of course, opposite ends of the political spectrum.  What they have in common, however, is the strength of their respective primary political party.  Across the political spectrum, the parties were united in opposing Prop. 14 because it would weaken the parties’ role in elections.  It seems, however, that most Californians don’t consider political parties to be all that important.    

Prop. 14’s biggest impact may be in future budget negotiations.  Not only will it make it harder for “hard-line” candidates to get elected, but party leaders will have less leverage over legislators by threatening to run candidates against them in the primary.  Prop. 14 is likely to be challenged in court, and won’t take effect until at least 2012.  We’ll just have to wait and see if it survives, and if so, whether it changes the current toxic budget dynamic.   

Finally, a couple more comments on the candidate side.  For all the talk about “tea parties” and anti-incumbent fever, incumbents did pretty well, at least in the congressional and legislative primary contests.  Off-hand, I can’t think of a race in which an incumbent was defeated.  [Readers — please point out if I’m wrong here.  I haven’t followed all the races that closely.]  Maybe the mood will be different in November, but for now, it doesn’t seem like incumbents are carrying a big stigma.   

The other race that may be worthy of note is for Superintendent of Public Instruction.  This is nominally a nonpartisan office, although traditionally Democrats have had an edge.  It was basically a three-way race, between two legislators: Tom Torlakson — supported by the teachers’ union, and Gloria Romero — supported by “reformers” who favor charter schools; and Larry Aceves, a retired administrator who tried to chart a middle   course.  The November run-off looks like it’ll be between Torlakson and Aceves.  It seems likely that many of Romero’s supporters will gravitate towards Aceves, who already had a slight edge in the results.  However, one can expect the teachers’ unions to spend heavily on Torlakson’s behalf (and expect corresponding rewards if he wins).  Looking at the results, Torlakson’s strength centered heavily around the Bay Area.  If he’s going to win, he’s going to have to expand his base.  Conversely, Aceves is going to have to gain better name recognition outside of his South Bay base, although his Hispanic roots may help him in many parts of the state.  This election is generally, however, a low-profile race. It’s the legislature and the governor who, by their budget decisions, have the biggest say about whether California public education will improve from its current dismal state.

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