Inside the I-80 Beltway, aka Sacramento, there is no shortage of political writers and pundits, pollsters, candidates and campaign consultants that try to “explain” election results. They draw sweeping conclusions after analyzing turnout, cross-tabs from as many polls as possible, candidates’ mail and messaging, and all the money spent on behalf of, or against candidates by “independent expenditure committees”. Their conclusions tend to emphasize which players’ efforts to manipulate voters were ultimately successful.
That way of looking at things inflates their value to other insiders while further demeaning voters’ participation in the process. In doing so, they miss larger trends that offer a glimpse into our democracy’s state of health.
During electoral season, when the mailboxes are filled with hit pieces and campaign promises, it is easy to forget that the State Legislature enacts a $150 billion dollar budget each year, and addresses literally every facet of voters lives.
Insiders want to debate whose mudslinging was the most devastating, but a deeper look at how voters sift
through (and dismiss much of) the information they receive shows that elections are more like job interviews than popularity contests. When applicants submit their resumes for a job opening, the prospective employer must first determine if the applicant possesses the minimum qualifications to actually do the job. If not, in most cases, no matter how compelling the personal story of the candidate, the individual will not get the job. Similarly, voters need to be convinced that the person “applying” for the job as a state assembly member or state senator, must be “qualified” to do the job at hand.
During electoral season, when the mailboxes are filled with hit pieces and campaign promises, it is easy to forget that the State Legislature enacts a $150 billion dollar budget each year, and addresses literally every facet of voters lives. These jobs are a big deal, and the voters get that. Thus, no matter how low the approval ratings are for the state legislature as a whole, it appears that many voters have intuitively set minimum qualifications for candidates. Paramount among these minimum qualifications appears to be prior service as a local elected official, as a council member, local board member or county supervisor. For the last legislative session, roughly 75% of members of the Assembly, and all but two members of the Senate, had previous elected experience.
There were two Southern California races in particular that highlighted the voters’ preference for candidates with experience as elected officials over candidates with compelling personal stories.
In the Assembly, Carson City Council Member Mike Gipson was pitted against Housing Project Engineer Prophet Walker. Gipson ran on his experience as an elected official, his work for Board of Equalization member Jerome Horton, his endorsements from most of the local elected officials, and his deep ties to the local Democratic Party. On the other hand, Walker and his supporters touted his remarkable story of personal redemption, which took him from the juvenile and adult penal system, to become a college graduate and role model for his community. Gipson won in a landslide.
Candidates who have incredibly inspiring personal stories, but lack experience as “elected officials,” may not pass the minimum qualification test for voters.
In the Senate, Santa Monica-Malibu School Board Member Ben Allen faced off against Sandra Fluke. Allen touted his experience as a local school board member, his long list of endorsements and deep roots in the Democratic Party, particularly his support from local Democratic organizations and clubs. Fluke and her supporters emphasized her commitment to public interest advocacy for gender equality, immigrant rights, and other civil rights.
More importantly, Fluke and her supporters sought to capitalize on her rise to national prominence fueled by the attacks of Rush Limbaugh and other conservative commentators after her testimony at a congressional hearing regarding birth control and the Affordable Care Act. As Fluke’s website says, “she believed it was her responsibility to use the microphone she was given to advance the policies she has always fought for.” This advocacy and passion landed her a spot on national television during the last Democratic Convention with President Barack Obama. Despite Fluke’s considerable star appeal, and impressive national fundraising base, Allen beat her by more than 20 points.
That means, in essence, that candidates who have incredibly inspiring personal stories, but lack experience as “elected officials” may not pass the minimum qualification test for voters, no matter how much money is spent in support of their campaigns. So, when you peel away all of the campaigning, all of the mail, television and radio ads and phone calls, elections may come down to the voters’ gut reaction to a candidate’s qualifications.
This analysis, however, apparently did not hold in the race between incumbent Assembly Member Raul Bocanegra and community organizer Patty Lopez. Then again, that race defied all so-called “conventional wisdom” after Bocanegra beat Lopez by 40 points in the primary just a few months ago.
Ed’s Note: Alberto Torrico served in the California State Assembly from 2004 through 2010, and was Majority Leader from 2008 to 2010.