Why California Members Embrace Incumbent Ballot Designation

Nathan L. Gonzales May 10, 2016 · 10:08 AM EDT

With congressional job approval hovering in the low teens, giving incumbents the opportunity to choose three words to describe themselves, and to refer to their current office, might seem like asking them to choose the words for their tombstone. But it’s a biennial tradition for the California delegation.

In the Golden State, candidates can choose their ballot designation, a short description, to accompany their name on the primary and general election ballots. The ballot designation is generally three words, unless it is an official title, and it's considered an important opportunity to leave a final impression on voters before they make their final selection. [Here is a brief explainer from the Riverside Press Enterprise from 2012.]

No one is surprised Congress is unpopular. Less than 14 percent of voters, on average, approve of the job Congress is doing, compared to 77 percent who disapprove, according to the Real Clear Politics average as of May 9. Congressional job approval hasn’t topped 25 percent in the RCP average in more than five years.

Yet even in the face of those numbers, all but one of the California members seeking re-election have some form of their current job in the designation.

There are 49 California members seeking re-election, but nearly a dozen different ways they refer to their current office on the ballot for the June 7 primary.

“The lens of malaise that voters view Congress doesn’t appear to translate to their own member of Congress, absent current scandal, corruption, etc.,” according to California-based pollster Justin Wallin of Probolsky Research. “We generally find that while job approval for Congress as a whole can be slight, approval for a District’s own representative tends to be over 50 percent, and disapproval numbers trail far behind.”

“The incumbent designation does far more to help congressional members than hurt, in spite of dismal rankings of Congress as a whole,” Wallin added.

Candidates can’t choose just any descriptor.

A  worksheet  helps candidates select a ballot designation with five guidelines including “your current principal profession(s), vocation(s), or occupations(s)” and “the full title of the public office you currently occupy and to which you were elected.”

Eight members list “United States Representative” — including Grace F. Napolitano, who includes her district number — as their ballot designation. Fifteen members went with the slightly different “U.S. Representative,” including five with district numbers.

Seven other members chose “Member of Congress,” including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, four used “United States Congressman,” five used a form of just “Congressman,” Jackie Speier and Zoe Lofgren went with “Congresswoman,” while Democrat Julia Brownley is using the very specific “Ventura County Congresswoman.”

Republicans Kevin McCarthy and Jeff Denham and Democrat Jim Costa went with the basic “Representative,” although Costa added “Farmer” to his designation.

The longest designations go to “Member, United States House of Representatives” Susan Davis, “Member, U.S. House of Representatives Darrell Issa,” and “United States Congress Member” Tony Cárdenas.

A handful of incumbents couple their current office with another occupation:

"There's no science behind a particular derivative," according to California-based GOP consultant Tim Orman, who works with "U.S. Representative/Farmer" Devin Nunes, "It's more about what's comfortable and sticks within the three-word limit."

GOP Rep. David Valadao is the only member of the California delegation not referencing his office in his designation.

In 2012, Valadao ran as a “Small Businessman/Farmer,” even though he was also serving in the state Assembly at the time. In 2014, Valadao adjusted his designation slightly to “Farmer/Small Businessman,” but made no mention of being a member of Congress.

The congressman is going with the same designation this year, which makes sense considering he won re-election, 58-42 percent, in 2014 against highly-touted Democratic challenger Amanda Renteria, who is now national political director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

“A candidate is permitted no more than three words for the ballot designation,” explained Kapolczynski, a long-time advisor to Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. “That can lead to some convoluted ballot titles as candidates try to string together the most popular words that will pass muster.”

Candidates can adjust their ballot designation between the primary and general elections. In 2012, Republican Rep. Gary G. Miller ran as a “Member of Congress” in the 31st District primary, but switched to “Congressman/Small Businessman” in the general election. In both races, he faced “Independent Small Businessman” Bob Dutton, a Republican who also happened to be a sitting state senator representing a sizable portion of the congressional district.

There are strict rules for former officeholders.

For example, former Democratic Rep. Joe Baca is running again, this time as a Republican in the 31st District. He’s running as a “Businessman/Legislative Consultant,” and can’t use “Former Member,” even if he wanted to. Baca, who lost re-election in 2012, also ran in 2014 when he was a “Public Policy Educator.” Former GOP Rep. Doug Ose ran as a “Small Business Owner” last cycle and lost to Rep. Ami Bera.