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Wisconsin and California: Past and Prologue

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The future is harder to see than the past. The Wisconsin recall campaign was, in many respects, a story about the past -- the century-long clash between labor and capital, which surely has a 21st-century post-modern form, but is nonetheless still framed as a battle between competing ideologies and organized interests. Is there a way out of that deadlock?

For my money, the most interesting feature of the Wisconsin results was what happened with independents. Exit polling showed 53 percent of them backed Republican Governor Scott Walker, resisting the pleas of organized labor and Democrats to use their vote to repudiate the attacks on public-sector employees. At the same time, though, 56 percent of independents say they plan to vote for President Obama in November. In partisan terms, these results might seem contradictory. But contradictions are often signs of a new politic taking hold. In this case, independents -- largely unorganized but frustrated with partisanship on both sides -- are the force behind the drive to find, or create, something new.

That same day, June 6, Californians went to the polls in the first full-scale election since the adoption by referendum of the Top Two primary system. Under this new nonpartisan system, all voters and all candidates, regardless of party affiliation or non-affiliation, participate on an equal footing. The top two finishers go on to compete head to head in the November election. Washington State has a similar system, and an effort is underway to bring Top Two to Arizona. Independent voters and candidates who are newly empowered in this system emerged as crucial players in this nonpartisan system. And here we get a glimpse of the political future.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle's post-election headline, "Top 2 Shakes up State." The results of California's first Top Two primary saw some small happenings that express a fundamental shift that is taking place in the U.S. electorate, where 40 percent of Americans now self-identify as independents. The possibilities latent in that shift have so far been contained by the closed primary system in effect in most states, where party members choose the candidates who appear on the November ballot and partisan redistricting assures that the winner of the primary of the majority party wins, thus deciding the election before most voters, including independents, get to vote. In these circumstances, the influence of independent voters has been minimized, except in competitive statewide races where these "swing" voters can still determine which of the two partisan candidates will win.

Top Two changes that dynamic. Under a Top two system, independent voters become an important factor in the first round. As a result of primaries in four of California's 53 Congressional districts, one of the two candidates on the general election ballot in November will be an independent. The other will be a Democrat or Republican. Will we see coalitions of independents and voters who identify with the party (or parties) not on the ballot block to win the general election? Perhaps. In a state where over 20 percent of voters are independents, every candidate must try to appeal to independent voters.

In the 15th Congressional District (which includes Oakland, a Democratic Party stronghold) 40-year incumbent Pete Stark, a hardcore Democrat, faced off against insurgent Democrat Eric Swalwell. In round one, Stark got 42 percent, Swalwell, 36 percent and independent Christopher Pareja, 22 percent. Under the old system, Stark's success in the Democratic Party primary, no matter how close, would have assured him of success in November. Independents now have a role to play in a choosing which Democrat will win. In the 24th Congressional District, Republican Abel Maldonado, a key leader in the effort that brought Top Two to California, will face off against a Democrat. The support of independents helped propel him to round two.

Jason Olson of California's IndependentVoice.Org, who worked to mobilize independent voters in several congressional districts, had this to say:

"Under the Top Two Open Primary independent voters played a significant role in shaping the choices in the November election. And we have seen the emergence of organized forces of independent voters working to leverage our agenda. Independents are no longer forced to choose between candidates selected by the partisan Democrats and Republican who vote in closed primary elections. And the fact that the general elections will now be competitive, even in areas where one party is dominant, means that independents will have even more clout."

The Los Angeles Times deadpanned after the primary, "Tuesday's election made clear that the promised political earthquake will have to wait." An earthquake? Perhaps not. A sea change? You bet.