Monday, February 25, 2013

2012 and GOP Candidates

Dave Weigel on Friday argued that there's been too much emphasis on disastrous GOP Senate candidates, especially the Tea Party ones; Ramesh Ponnuru follows up on that today by pointing out (again) that Mitt Romney ran ahead of most GOP Senate candidates. I think I agree with the main point each of them makes...but there's a lot going on here. I'll go bullet-point style:

* As I've said many times, the out-party candidate challenging an incumbent president just isn't very important.

* The big thing that the out-party candidate can get wrong is being perceived as an ideological outlier; in my view, Romney probably did about as well on that as any Republican could have done in 2012.

* That still leaves open the possibility that Romney lost a point or two on ideology; if so, it was certainly because of the GOP, not him.

* I agree with Weigel that the direct costs of awful Tea Party candidates is probably a bit overstated, and almost certainly gets more attention that it deserves.

* However, the indirect effects are likely large -- because fringe primary winners, including those who go on to win general elections, surely deter strong candidates from entering in the first place.

* While it's impossible to prove a direct one-to-one connection, that recruitment failure was the actual big story of 2012, with Republicans unable to nominate strong candidates in potentially competitive states including Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.

* To the extent it's true, that recruitment disincentive is a potentially huge effect (there can even be third-order effects from it, with Democrats able to deploy resources better because of dud GOP candidates).

* That said...Republicans certainly had solid-on-paper candidates in Hawaii, New Mexico, and North Dakota, and none of them did well. In Wisconsin, they just mistook former Governor Tommy Thompson for a strong general election candidate; can't blame Tea Partiers for that one.

* Although in at least some of these cases, the party may make it difficult for those candidates to run their strongest races.

* While, again, I think the general point that Romney did okay given the fundamentals is fine, one needs to be very, very, careful about comparing presidential results with any single other statewide race; candidates and campaign can make a large difference in the latter, so one can't really judge the presidential candidate by simple comparisons to state-election results.


  1. Define overstated (in "the direct costs of awful Tea Party candidates is probably a bit overstated").

    It's really tough to make the case that the 5 folks tossed out as examplars for Senate elections didn't actually cost at least 3 seats. Odds, youneverknow, caveat, etc. But, you really can't get around how terribad those candidates were, especially for their states.

    Now, I'm not saying those effects are more meaningful than the primary/indirect effects. But Angle and O'Donnell (in particular) lost the GOP seats.

    1. I'm not really so sure that Harry Reid loses against...I'm forgetting, but there wasn't a strong GOP candidate in that field.

      In DE, Castle almost certainly wins the seat for the GOP. OTOH, a non-wacko pro-life candidate might well have won the primary and then lost the general election.

      Lugar is a sure winner. MO Senate? I think McCaskill was always a it underrated...she probably loses to one of the others, but not certain.

      I have no problem with saying it cost the GOP 1-5 seats, with 4-5 way more likely than 1-2. But I hear a lot of certainty that it's 5, and plenty of assertions that those seats have cost the GOP the Senate, which doesn't work at all.

  2. What Ponnuru fails to emphasize is that Romney was an above average Presidential candidate who ran a reasonably good campaign in the circumstances of 2012, but those circumstances (a moderately popular incumbent with the ability to obtain a large turnout from the Democratic base and a growing economy) made a Republican victory very difficult to achieve. Similarly, Kerry in 2004 was an above average Democratic candidate who ran about as well as could have been expected given that Bush in 2004 was a moderately popular President with the ability to obtain a large turnout from the Republican base, and the economy was growing. Both Democrats after the 2004 election and Republicans after the 2012 election bashed their losing candidates inappropriately; both ran competent, professional campaigns that came up a bit short due to adverse circumstances.

  3. "As I've said many times, the out-party candidate challenging an incumbent president just isn't very important."

    Sometimes this is true--no Democrat could have defeated Ike in 1956 or Reagan in 1984. No Republican could have beaten LBJ in 1964 or (probably) Clinton in 1996 (we can speculate about Colin Powell but I don't think he could have won the GOP nomination, and if he did there could have been a right-wing third party). And I don't really see any plausible GOP candidate who could have defeated Obama in 2012, though perhaps Daniels would have made it closer. Maybe it is also true that any Democrat could have beaten GHW Bush in a three-way race in 1992, though I can see a number of potential Democratic candidates losing some of the southern and border states Clinton carried and maybe even Ohio as well.

    But I would hate to be dogmatic about that. Without Jimmy Carter, the Democrats would not have carried ten of the eleven ex-Confederate states in 1976, and I am by no means sure that a northern or western liberal would have carried enough non-southern states Carter lost to make up the difference. (Remember that Carter's southernness and born-again Christianity also helped him in border states like Missouri and in parts of some northern states, like southern Ohio.) And I'm not totally certain a Democrat with greater appeal to working-class white voters than Kerry (Gephardt?) couldn't have narrowly won Ohio and the Electoral College in 2004.

    Yes, presidential races are largely referenda on how the incumbent has done. But in a close race, the opposing candidate could matter.

    1. I'm sure that if, say, Mo Udall or Frank Church had been the Democratic nominee in 1976 that the electoral map would have looked different. But still...alas, the last Gallup number for Ford is a 45% approval in June, but I see no reason to think he was significantly higher than that on election day, and so basically what the national vote looks like is going to be more or less what we expect.

      Same with 1992; Clinton is a terrific politician, but Cuomo wins that one too, just with a somewhat different map. The other plausible nominees, too.

    2. June 1976 was when Carter clinched the Democratic nomination, and the favorable publicity attending this may have helped depress Ford's populairty a little. (Carter had a huge lead over Ford in trial heats in June.) I think it perfectly plausible that Ford (who stood at 50 percent in March) would later in the year have gotten to the, say, 48 percent job approval rating that was good enough for George W. Bush in 2004.

    3. I think it's quite unlikely that Democratic nomination politics had any effect on Ford's approval rating.

      I suppose there must be other polling out there, but Ford never topped 50% in Gallup after the pardon; he was an unelected president from what was still probably the minority party who had both Watergate (and pardon) plus what was then perhaps the worse recession since the war on his party's record.

      I think Carter underperformed.

  4. First of all, I doubt that Watergate and the Nixon pardon aroused the same passions in 1976 that they had in 1974. Second, was the GOP "still probably the minority party" in *presidential* elections in 1976? I don't think so--many southerners (and border staters and even "border northerners") who called themselves Democrats had voted Republican in most or all of the past six presidential elections. Perhaps a Church or a Udall would have carried California and Oregon but I don't see how that would make up for all the southern and border states they would probably lose. They might do better in New York than Carter, but since he narrowly carried the state anyway, that would not be any help in the Electoral College. In Illinois, they might have done better than Carter in, say, the North Shore suburbs of Chicago, but Carter carried plenty of southern Illinois counties which JFK and Humphrey had lost, and I don't see a northern liberal carrying them in 1976, either. Ford's margin in his home state of Michigan was sufficiently large (51.8-46.4) to make me doubt any Democrat could have beaten Ford there. Given that both JFK and Humphrey had lost Ohio and that Carter did well in the southern part of that state too, I also doubt that a Church or Udall could carry Ohio.

    Yes, there had been a recession in 1974-75 with unemployment peaking at 9.0% in May 1975. But the final report before Election Day had it down to 7.7%. As Barack Obama proved in 2012, that is not necessarily too high for an incumbent president to win.

    Given that a switch of a very small number of votes in Ohio and Mississippi would have given the White House to Ford, I just do not see a Democratic victory in 1976 as inevitable under Carter or anyone else.


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