Wednesday, June 25, 2008

This is not how campaigns work

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 you're the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and you've got a few extra dollars to throw around, where do you put them? Into the Louisiana race, where John N. Kennedy is challenging your incumbent Mary Landrieu? Or somewhere like Kentucky, where Bruce Lunsford is trying to knock off Mitch McConnell?

The obvious answer would seem to be: "whichever race is closer". But I'm not sure if it's that simple. The reason is that there is a much bigger difference ideologically between McConnell and Lunsford (who is actually fairly progressive and would become a reliable Democratic vote on issues like health care) than there is between Kennedy and Landrieu (who is not a reliable vote on much of anything). So in terms of the actual, long-run mechanics of getting the legislation you want passed, the stakes could easily be twice as high in Kentucky as they are in Louisiana.

The equation would be a little different, of course, if control of the chamber were in doubt. But since it probably isn't in this cycle, Democrats have to move beyond being obsessed with the seat count and treating all wins as being equal. Some really do count more than others.

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.
Most of this is ugly. Some of it is wrong, especially the foreshortened time horizon. We all suffer for it.

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.

1 comment:

Nell said...

Thanks for the splash of cold water.

It might count for something that McConnell is the Minority Leader and in some trouble (below 50%), making a nice opportunity for a pickoff. But, as you say, support for that would be based on some real possibility for the Dem challenger, not on the basis of his/her platform.

And the money would be extra money, raised on the basis of the special opportunity, not coming at the expense of support for an incumbent.

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