These days, one of my regular pleasures is visiting FiveThirtyEight, a blog using the tagline, "Electoral Projections Done Right." Think a baseball stats obsessive, a lover of numerical minutia, turned loose on the Presidential race and you get the idea. Plus Nate (the stat guy) has brought in a campaign wonk, Sean, one of whose posts, The Voter File, is an invaluable beginner level exposition of what campaign databases are all about.
This is a blog I respect a lot. So I was astonished to read this misguided analysis at 538 this morning.
If I were looking for a perfect illustration of the difference between what campaigns look like to the people that make them happen and to low-information voters, this would qualify.
Let's pull out what's wrong here.
- Campaigns aren't about building a majority for a policy like health care; they are about winning for a particular candidate in a particular location under particular circumstances. I could wish that ideology mattered, but once the nominee is selected, ideological appeals only matter if they help get the candidate 50 percent plus 1 from the electorate. Sometimes they are popular with voters; it’s the polled popularity, not the good positions, that attract cash to candidates who espouse good positions.
- Short version of the same thought: campaigns aren't about "the long run" -- they are one of the ultimate forms of "live for today."
- The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) exists to maintain the existing leadership in power. Part of that means defending the incumbents who put in the current leadership; those incumbents are sure to look more valuable to the DSCC than any challenger.
- Some challengers do get support. They get support because, if elected, they can be trusted to support the existing leadership of the DSCC. Sometimes other variables may trump this imperative, but the guys doling out the cash never completely forget it.
- Of course the seat count matters. Current DSCC leadership will be evaluated by how many seats they win, not by who the new Senators are.
But it does us no good to pretend campaigns work some other way -- in fact, illusions about this get in the way of figuring out how to turn the campaign mechanism to better ends.
Very obviously, the time to push candidates on matters ideological is in primaries. Since the Democratic party is becoming a mobilized base many of whose members feel their interests are poorly represented by their leaders, expect to see more primary challenges to incumbents who aren't listening to their constituents.