ATLANTA — If California’s latest political fashion comes east, it could shake up politics in the Peach State, experts say.
Last week, California put into gear its so-called jungle primary in which all candidates appear on the same ballot regardless of party. Voters can pick a candidate from one party in one race and another party in a second and an independent in a third.
“I know all the trends start in California,” said Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University.
Not just fashions and entertainment trends. Remember the tax revolt Harold Jarvis launched from California and the immigration crackdown?
Richard Nixon, Earl Warren, Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger also started their political careers there.
Schwarzenegger, the body-building Republican governor, sponsored a state referendum that led to use of the jungle primary. His aim was to break up the Democrats’ stranglehold on the Legislature, which prevented him from getting anything passed.
The idea is that allowing independents and members of both major parties to select the nominees would force candidates to take moderate stances. It would end the zigzag common to most elections where a candidate has to run to the right or the left to win the nomination and then race to the middle for the general election.
Georgia uses the same mechanism in special elections. That’s how the General Assembly wound up with an independent, something unheard of in traditional elections.
Swint notes that independents are the fastest-growing voter bloc.
“Voters like choices, so they say they don’t like parties that much anyway,” he said.
A survey by the University of California, Berkeley, Institute of Governmental Studies shows that 16 percent of party members also planned to vote for someone from the opposite party.
Yet other research shows voters still like to see candidates’ party labels because it helps them make a decision when voting in down-ticket races where they know little about the candidates.
The primary may lessen some of the power of incumbents, but that can’t be gauged this year because a citizen commission redistricted the state, which left many veteran officeholders running in new territory or against colleagues.
California is a complex state. Georgia, on the other hand, is dominated by one party and one political philosophy, conservative.
While June 5’s voting gave California a lot of runoffs between two candidates of the same party, last month’s candidate-qualifying period did the same thing in Georgia, where six congressmen face challengers from their own party.
Primary challengers, though, usually are running to the outside and accusing the incumbent of losing touch with the party base.
Districts in Georgia are so lopsided that primaries effectively determine the whole election, as they did before California installed its jungle approach.
“It would change Georgia pretty dramatically,” said Randy Evans, a political adviser on the congressional and national level and a former member of Georgia’s State Election Board.
Evans, who has served as chairman of recent state GOP conventions, and other party stalwarts warn that California’s top-two primary can be manipulated by a few people, especially when there are many candidates and no runoff for the nomination.
“Personally I think having choices that actually reflect the center right and the center left of the two parties is fine,” he said.
California’s system is almost a nonpartisan election because party rules usually prevent aid to candidates before they’ve secured the nomination.
“It does over time diminish the power of the parties,” said Bill Crane, a veteran political operative and commentator.
Candidates who have lots of name recognition, money and a base of support thrive without a party infrastructure.
They’ll campaign through social media directly to the marginally engaged, swing voters in the primary rather than the political junkies who reliably vote in the typical primary, Crane notes.
But they also make it without the vetting parties provide, screening by insiders who know the candidates personally.
For example, Linda Schrenko failed to get any financial support in her quest for the 2002 GOP gubernatorial nomination because the people in her party who knew her considered her a flake. Yet, she had won statewide in the superintendent of schools race where money wasn’t a major factor and voters unfamiliar with either candidate were drawn to her populist rhetoric.
Populism may be the most likely outcome of the jungle primary. That could result in incumbents being dumped more readily as the majority swings more in response to the passion of the moment.
In that sense, populism isn’t new. The tea party and Occupy Wall Street are two of its latest manifestations.
Incumbent politicians would undoubtedly argue that statesmanship suffers in the face of populism and that traditional primaries are a refuge against its extremes.
The founding fathers hoped they had created a system free of political parties, but as soon as the country began operating under the Constitution, these same founders quickly gravitated into factions that became parties.
Maybe the Californians have invented a better mousetrap. Or maybe it’s like reality television, celebrity fascination and other goofy trends that also originated on the Left Coast.