Monday, August 16, 2010

Against the Tide

A Dave Weigel piece on Thursday and a New York Times article over the weekend both try to navigate the same ground: the differences between an overall electoral landscape that favors Republicans, and some specific trends within that landscape that could help Democrats.

Weigel argues that "crazy" GOP candidates such as Sharron Angle and Rand Paul shouldn't be written off, comparing them to some Democrats who beat DCCC choices in 2006 primaries and went on to win anyway.  He also makes the good point that some of people they beat in primaries that were expected to do well in November may have lost because they turned out to be lousy candidates.  I think one has to be careful with these sorts of explanations.  It's easy to say that Sue "chickens for checkups" Lowden ran a  lousy campaign because we know about one high-profile gaffe.  Still, we don't really know that Lowden was a bad candidate overall, and one should always be suspicious of post-election narratives that conveniently remember every campaign mistake of the losers.  That's not to say Lowden would have been a very strong candidate; the larger story of the Nevada Senate race is that no truly first-rate candidate filed to take on Harry Reid.  Beyond that, it's also worth remembering that something that makes a candidate genuinely weak in a GOP primary -- such as insufficient fidelity to Tea Party issues -- can be an advantage, not a disadvantage, in November.  So while Weigel is certainly correct that some of the "crazy" candidates will win, and that some of the non-crazy candidates may have lost because of real weaknesses, overall I think it's clear that Republicans are not nominating the best possible candidates -- and that it will, on the margins, cost them in the fall. 

Jeff Zeleny's NYT article details the differences between 1994, when many Democrats failed to take GOP challenges seriously, and better preparation by the Democrats this time around.  It's a good article, because Zeleny mostly avoids the trap of overstating the importance of what he's describing.  And, the truth is, it's unlikely that the difference he's describing is likely to affect election results very much.  That doesn't mean it's not a good thing to report.  For one thing, I think it's just inherently interesting to know what Members of Congress are thinking about and doing, and it's possible that Democratic vigilance may have effects other than in electoral politics (for example: it may be that Democrats are more eager to get back home than usual, which puts more pressure on the Senate and House floor schedules).  And, on the margins, it's certainly possible that some Democrats will be saved from electoral extinction because they campaigned earlier and harder.  So it's worth knowing. 

The trick, and as I said I think Zeleny largely gets this right, is to add to what we know about elections without making overly dramatic claims about marginal pieces of information.  I think that's a tough one for reporters, who after all need to sell editors and ultimately readers on the importance of their stories, so I'm always glad to see someone get it mostly right.


  1. I think there may (possibly, maybe) prove to be a larger effect than might be expected, due to the intersection of the two points you mention.
    House primaries have an even greater propensity than high-profile Senate races to produce challenger nominees with a little of the crazy in them. And, by taking those challengers more seriously from earlier on, vulnerable Dem incumbents (or nominees for open seats) are likely to be much more prepared to discover, publicize, and exploit evidence of the crazy.
    Not that it will a central driving force of the election cycle, but I think there are already districts where the combination has the Democrat breathing a lot easier, and I would not be surprised if at least a half-dozen GOP candidates (and maybe a lot more) in theoretically "tossup" districts end up losing because of it.

  2. I'm not really sold on the "being prepared this time" part of it being very important. My guess is that there's probably less to it than meets the eye -- it's a combination of selective memory from 1994 and a bit of bravado about 2010. I do think the quality of GOP challengers matters quite a bit, and I'd still like to see more reporting about how many Sharron Angle types (or worse) are being nominated in otherwise competitive races. I think I've seen one reported estimate of around 30, but nothing more concrete.

    I'd say that half a dozen lost races for the GOP because of candidate quality, with an upside higher than that, sounds plausible to me.

  3. One reason I think this might be slightly more important is that control of the House might turn on a half dozen races. Most prognostications have the Republicans picking up between 30 and 40 seats. 40 means they take over. 34 means they're just short (I think, I'm glad to have my math reexamined).

    So I agree that we're only talking about marginal effects, but it seems like this election's gonna be fought in the margins.

    I wonder, though, if the word is getting out about too many of these crazies. Sure, Angle and Paul are well known, but what about some Tea Bagger running for Congress somewhere? I haven't heard about too many, and I'm not sure local news has what it takes to discover them anymore.

  4. Weigel downplays why Angle has been tagged the "crazy" candidate. All he mentions is her desire to privatize Social Security (which makes her no crazier than Bush). He ignores her wildest statements, such as her "Second Amendment" remark which sounded quite audibly like a threat to Reid's life, not to mention a call for armed rebellion against the government. We all need to step out of our political commentary mode for a moment and pause to think how incredibly disturbing this is. Maybe Reid wanted her as his opponent, and maybe the GOP have shot themselves in the foot by nominating her, but statements like that are not merely stupid but a harbinger of the breakdown of democracy.


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