Critics call California’s three-year-old top two primary election system a “jungle primary” because it tosses candidates of all stripes into the same pot, forcing them to speak to all voters since only the two leading vote-getters can make it into November runoff elections.
But by this time next year, the national Republican Party might be wishing this system were in effect much more widely.
The reason is clear: Donald Trump.
Almost all pundits until very recently gave him only a slim chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination he seeks so avidly. No poll gives him much chance of besting any leading Democratic candidate.
Yet, Trump has been the steady leader in the GOP polls since declaring his candidacy with a blast at illegal immigration, calling the undocumented a bunch of criminals, rapists and murderers despite the fact their crime rate is about as low as that of any group in America.
The facts on this and other items don’t faze Trump because he knows who he’s appealing to: the most radically conservative voters in the Republican Party’s base. Because Republican primaries are winner-take-all, all he needs is a plurality among GOP voters in a few states in order to force most other Republican candidates out of the race.
This means Trump has no need to appease moderate Republicans or even think about Democrats, as he would need to do in a top-two race like those that have brought an element of moderation to California’s Legislature.
It means that for now he needs to deal with only a very small slice of America, no matter how little credibility may have in other quarters. Nationally, registered GOP voters amount to about 32 percent of all registrants, about 15 percentage points behind Democrats. Polls now show Trump drawing between 25 and 40 percent of the GOP vote, or approximately 8 to 10 percent of those who have registered.
But the registered account for less than three-fourths of those eligible to vote. So Trump currently is drawing support from only about 7 or 8 percent of eligible voters, a small portion of the nation. But if he continues drawing his current level of support and no other candidate passes him, he can win the GOP nomination just like that.
In fact, Trump doesn’t even need support from 7 percent of eligible voters, because far less than half of all registered Republicans vote regularly in primary elections. This means he needs to appeal to barely 3 percent of the entire eligible voter pool.
That level of support certainly wouldn’t win him the presidency, but it could produce utter disaster for his party, because if Trump should be the GOP nominee, he could drag down many members of the House and Senate in swing states and districts.
That’s why longtime GOP leaders like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona warn that Trump could spell ruination for their party.
They might be right, and a top-two primary system operating nationally could be the solution.
Yes, such a system could one day result in pitting Democrat vs. Democrat or Republican vs. Republican for the presidency, as has happened in dozens of California legislative races since this state voted for the switch to top two.
In many of those cases, the more moderate, less radically right or left candidate has won, one reason why the state Legislature is a far more functional body today than it was just a few years ago. (The other reason is that Californians voted several years ago to eliminate the two-thirds-vote requirement for passing budgets.)
It’s true minor party candidates have not yet made it into a runoff under top two. But that doesn’t mean they can’t if one of them ever develops mass appeal.
Imagine the scare a third-party candidate like Ross Perot or John Anderson could put into both major parties under a national top two primary system.
The Republican Party has been as active as the Democrats in opposing such change, on both state and national levels. But if Trump leads Republicans to a complete disaster next year using the current closed primary system, the GOP might have to change its tune, and soon.