Top Two means Losers First?

There are two open House of Representatives seats in Southern California.  Republicans had held both districts, but both are retiring.  Democrats hope to pick up both seats, as Hillary Clinton won both districts.  But with the Top Two primaries and too many Democratic contenders, it’s looking like the seats might go GOP because of the primaries, before the election.

Why Do You Care?

The Republicans currently control both the House (239 to 193) and Senate (51-49, plus the VP tie breaker.)  And they control the Presidency.  Democrats hope to “flip” the House and possibly the Senate to regain some power in Washington.

The Top Two Primaries could complicate this for the Democrats, much as the Electoral College gave Trump the Presidency despite (Hillary) Clinton winning the popular vote.  (Do keep in mind that Trump won 85% of the land mass!  Clinton didn’t get much territory, only densely populated coasts.)

What Is Top-Two?

Top Two allows the voters to choose who moves onto the final ballot, rather than the political parties (Democrats, Republicans) choosing.  Previously, parties would nominate candidates, usually through primary elections but it could also be via caucuses or, historically, back room deals.


  • “Primaries” are elections prior to the main election, to winnow down the candidate list.
  • Historically:
    • Voters could only vote for candidates of their declared party affiliation.  i.e. if you are a Democrat, you can only vote in the Democratic primary.
    • The top Democrat and top Republican, and depending on vote count, possibly other parties (e.g. Independents, Libertarians) advance to the final ballot – the official election.
  • Under “Top Two”, all candidates compete in the primary.  Only the top two make it to the final ballot in the election.

Context and Impact

Top Two was pioneered in Washington State.   California switched to the top-two primary system with the 2010 ballot initiative, Proposition 14, allowing voters to vote for anyone, regardless of party.  The top two system, or open primaries, are very popular in California.

The parties do not like this so much, primarily because they lose control.  Third-parties almost never make it to the ballot.  The upcoming primaries for the House of Representatives in Southern California are a perfect example.

This region has moved Democratic.    California is very blue.  And yet both seats could go to the Republicans…  because too many Democrats are running in the primaries.

The problem is that the Democratic vote may split between too many candidates, giving the highest vote tallies out of the primaries to the fewer Republicans.  With only the top two on the final (non-primary) ballot, a heavily Democratic region could wind up being forced to choose between two Republican candidates.

(Similarly, the 2016 California Senate race had only Democratic nominees on the final ballot.)

The Problem Illustrated

Suppose there are ten candidates: seven Democrats (D1 through D7), a socialist (BS – for Bernie Sanders) and two Republicans (R1 and R2.)  Suppose the Republicans together only get 28% of the primaries vote, but it’s distributed as follows:

  • D1: 13%
  • D2: 12%
  • D3: 11%
  • D4: 10%
  • D5: 8%
  • D6:  7%
  • D7: 6%
  • BS: 5%
  • R1: 14%
  • R2: 14%

That’s 100% of the vote total.  The Democratic Party took 67% of the vote.  The Republican Party took 28% of the vote, or less than half as much as the Democrats. Less than 1/3 of the total vote and yet the top two vote-getters are Republican.

At which point your ballot choices for the election would be: R1 and R2.  The winner would be a Republican even though the district voted Democrat by 67%, or more than 2/3!

Losing by a split vote is widely believed to be how Bill Clinton beat George Bush in 1992; H. Ross Perot took 19% of the vote, primarily from the Conservative side.

Why It Matters: National Context

  • Every Representative is up for election every two years.  Senate terms are six-years.
  • Republicans hold a 239 to 193 seat advantage in the House
  • Three seats are empty
  • 31 Republicans are leaving (retiring or running for a different office)
  • 15 Democrats are doing the same.
  • To take the majority, Democrats need to “flip” 24 seats.
  • The Orange County area used to be one of the more reliably Republican portions of California.  Often referred to as “behind the Orange Curtain” by Democrats.

This could cost the Democrats two pick-ups and control of the House.  (On the other hand, Republicans are regularly shut out of races in California and Washington, when no Republicans make it past the primaries.)

Who Are They?

Ed Royce is a Republican representing Fullerton in Southern California.  He was House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman.  He served 13 terms, 26 years.  His retirement is opening an opportunity that Democrats figured would give them a chance at the House majority.  Despite his affiliation, his district supported Clinton over Trump by 8 points.

Darrell Issa is a Republican representing the 49th District near San Diego, also in Southern California.  He has been in office since 2001.

The Senate

Top Two systems have less impact on the Senate; each state has only two Senators, which each being elected by the entire state.  California has 53 Representatives and they are regional.  Each California Senator is representing over 100 times more people (roughly) than each Representative.

But the other reason the Senate isn’t in the news as much right now is that, despite being closer in-balance (51-49 rather than 239-193), it is perceived as less likely to “flip”, or change.  Democrats and their allies have 25 seats to defend in this mid-term election.  Republicans are only defending 8.  And while the GOP only has a one-seat advantage (it’s 51-49 right now, so flipping one seat makes a tie), the Democrats have more risky seats.  The CNN Top Ten suggest two Republican and eight Democrat-held seats likely to flip.  Which could give the GOP a larger Senate majority.

Remember that the government shutdown was largely due to the Senate mix and not being able to stop the filibuster.  If the Republicans gain in the Senate, they may wind up with more budget power.


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