Assembly District 50: California's New Primary System Helped Underdog Richard Bloom

A few weeks ago, we conducted an informal exit poll for the hotly contested Assembly District 50 race, wanting to know why people voted for Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom and Assemblywoman Betsy Butler. Then last week, we got an email from CalTech political science graduate student Andrew Sinclair.

As part of his dissertation on primary election reform in the United States, Sinclair had conducted a major phone survey involving 1,134 voters in AD 50 during the few weeks leading up to last June's primary. It's something that's very rarely done for state assembly races. What he found was fascinating, particularly when it comes to Bloom's underdog campaign, who has widened his lead to 888 votes.

The main thing that Sinclair learned is that the top-two primary system in California worked very well for underdog Richard Bloom.

The new system was instituted this year, and Republicans, Democrats, and everyone else run in the same primary, with the top two candidates meeting each other in the fall run-off. So two Democrats could face each other in the same run-off -- or two Republicans.

Sinclair, who worked on the survey with CalTech political scientist Mike Alvarez, notes that under the old system, Betsy Butler, who had the backing of the California State Democratic Party, would have probably won the Democratic primary.

Bloom, another Democrat, would have been gone, and Butler would have faced Republican Brad Torgan in the run-off. In liberal AD 50, Butler would have easily trounced Torgan.

Instead, under this year's top two primary, two Democrats -- Butler and Bloom -- faced each other in the run-off. Bloom, who was not the choice of the state and local Democratic party machines, then made the AD 50 race much more competitive. In fact, he leads Buter by 430 votes, with more ballots to be counted.

"This is a good example of where the top two makes a difference by giving Bloom an opportunity to make a competitive election," says Sinclair.

Sinclair also notes that although Democratic candidate Torie Osborn raised and spent a huge amount of money on campaign mailers during the primary, his survey shows that many voters still did not know her as well as Bloom and Butler. Despite sending out a constant stream of mailers, Osborn placed fourth during the primary, behind Brad Torgan.

"Voters had more information about Butler and Bloom," says Sinclair.

Which makes you wonder if voters actually read mailers, and if that's the most effective way for a little known candidate to spend his or her campaign funds.

Sinclair says, "What's amazing is how well Bloom did without as much money as Butler and Osborn."

Indeed, Bloom was out-raised by hundreds of thousands of dollars by both candidates, which happened again during the run-off with Butler.

Sinclair points out that Bloom may have benefitted from the fact that more voters saw him as the candidate who was closest to the political middle. While Butler got major support from Democrats in Sinclair's survey, Bloom got strong backing from Independents, Republicans, and other voters, while also winning over a respectable chunk of Democrats.

Even in liberal AD 50, that coalition of middle-of-the-road voters undoubtedly helped Bloom in the run-off, says Sinclair.

Sinclair also worked on a "profile" of AD 50 voters, which shows where they stand on issues such as government spending, gay marriage, abortion, and immigration.

The breakdown went this way:

- When voters were asked about different solutions to fix the state's fiscal problems, 55 percent of them -- the overwhelming majority -- said they thought a mix of spending cuts and increased taxes was the smartest way to go.

- Seventy-eight percent totally supported gay marriage.

- Forty-four percent of AD 50 voters thought abortion should be easier to get. "That's pretty unusual," Sinclair says.

- Forty-four percent thought there should be no changes to abortion laws.

- In terms of the focus of U.S. immigration policy, 18 percent of voters thought current laws should enforced, 37 percent believed immigrants should be allowed to get on a path towards citizenship, and 40 percent favored a mix of both.

It seems to us all those things show that AD 50 voters are certainly liberal, but they're not way out there on the left wing. Sinclair says his survey also shows that Republicans in AD 50 are very moderate. It's stuff people have guessed, but now there's some hard data.

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at pmcdonald@laweekly.com.


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