Imagine an election. The candidate on one side is a smart outsider. The other is a well-meaning insider. One side has more money than it could possibly spend. The other side relies mainly on the leftover scraps raised by a once popular predecessor. The outsider’s stump speech is veritable progressive wish list, while the insider tries to cull support on a single issue. Polls show the smooth outsider with a 25-point lead. Even the thumb-on-the scale internal polls of the well-meaning insider have them down by 9 points. Those same polls show that only 1 out of 3 voters can name either candidate. The major media outlets in the state line up and trip over themselves to endorse the smart outsider.
Imagine another election. This one still has the same smart outsider, but instead the other side has champion insider with a reputation for working across the aisle. Both sides have all the money our public financing system will allow them to have. Polls in this imaginary race narrow as Election Day approaches. Voters struggle to decide whether to believe the progressive promises, or go with a proven and practical record of accomplishment. Voter attention is sky high (maybe only 1 in 6 voters fail to know either candidate?). Editorial meetings become fistfights over whom to endorse.
The first election doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see. It is exactly what is happening in New Jersey’s current race for Governor between Phil Murphy and Kim Guadagno.
The second election? That is just one of many interesting scenarios that might have played out in New Jersey’s primary election if we had a “Top-Two” system. What is that? Thanks for asking.
It is exactly what it sounds like. The “Top-Two” vote getters in the primary become the two candidates in the general election. Party labels don’t really matter. Instead, of having one winner for the Democrats and one for the Republicans, under the Top-Two system you could have two Democrats or two Republicans or one of each or (God forbid) One Republican and one Libertarian candidate. California and Washington currently use this system and a number of other states are considering it.
So… how might that work in New Jersey?
The imaginary second election I described above is (at least in my head) a race between Phil Murphy and Steve Sweeney that could have happened in a top-two system. I don’t think anyone would doubt this race would be a lot more interesting than the snooze fest we have ended up with. But here is how it could have happened.
Steve Sweeney dropped out early because he is good at math. He recognized the immense numbers advantage that having the party lines gives New Jersey candidates in our current traditional party dominant system. Murphy won all the party lines and got 243,643 votes. Jim Johnson came in second with zero party lines and got 110,250 votes. End of story. I didn’t say the math was difficult, just that Sweeney could do it.
However, the math changes in a top-two system. Phil Murphy is a good, well-funded candidate, with some great ideas. He works hard and actually enjoys gripping and grinning with ward leaders at chicken dinners. As a result, maybe he still gets all of the “party” lines and perhaps even the same number of votes. But in a top-two primary, the story doesn’t necessarily end there.
If we look at all 11 primary election candidates and the total votes each received we see that three of them; Kim Guadagno (113,846 votes), Jim Johnson (110,250 votes) and John Wisniewski (108,532 votes) were tightly clustered around second place. You could even argue that Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli was not that far behind a second place finish with his 75,556 total votes.
A well-known centrist candidate like Sweeney might look at numbers like that and decide to stay in the race. In fact, I would bet that he would have come in second with that same field.
Now, having secured a place in the finals, Sweeney could have tried to cobble together a combination of New Jersey Republican voters (who are wildly disappointed with the party of both Chris Christie and Donald Trump) and those Democrats not necessarily “controlled” by existing party bosses. It might not have been enough to win against the New Jersey Democratic Party juggernaut but it might have.
Whether this fanciful scenario could come to pass is an interesting thought exercise. There are lots of different permutations of who would get second place in this type of system. Perhaps Johnson and Murphy have an all-out progressive blood bath. Maybe Wisniewski and Ciattarelli form a bi-partisan coalition of ambition. Maybe Guadagno still comes in second but comes closer to Murphy in total votes and the race starts out a little more evenly.
But one thing is crystal clear. A top-two election system makes competing against an entrenched party structure more likely and perhaps even possible. That has to count for something.
So…. What about moving New Jersey to a Top-Two primary election system?