Recently I took economist Russ Roberts to task for misunderstanding electoral politics, for his apparent prediction that Obama and the Democrats have already lost this fall’s, and apparently 2012’s elections One of the arguments I made in rebuttal was:
You also need a good candidate.
I was talking about presidential candidates then, but it holds true for just about any given race. And now comes along Nevada’s Sharron Angle to provide a perfect case study. Angle has managed to blow an 11 point lead over the deeply unpopular Harry Reid over the past couple of months. Recommending armed insurrection if you don’t win the election apparently doesn’t play so well with the electorate, even in Nevada, a state that is home to a disproportionate number of “country supremacy” folks. Or maybe it was that business of telling raped and pregnant women to just make lemonade out of that little lemon inside them, instead of considering abortion.
There’s a (natural) tendency to think a very unpopular incumbent just doesn’t stand a chance. But that just doesn’t hold if the challenger actually manages to be less popular than the incumbent. Case in point: In 2002 Gray Davis ran for re-election with an approval rating well below majority level, at around 39%.* But conservative activists foolishly believed the public was hankering for an RTCTM (real true conservative), and nominated a candidate much too far to the right for the general California electorate.
As everyone knows, but everyone seems to forget, primary elections are biased samples, dominated by the parties’ less-moderate supporters. If, say, 50% of the public generally identifies with your party, 25% of them cast votes in the primary, and Candidate X wins the primary with 40% of the vote, then you have a candidate who’s just proven that .5*.25*.4 = .05–that’s 5%–of the public supports her. That’s all X has proven so far. Sure we know without a doubt she’ll get more than that, but that’s where she starts.
Let me hasten to note that I am not predicting a Reid victory. The polls are obviously too volatile at the moment to go that far out on a limb. But for the same reason it’s foolish to predict a Reid loss. There are three months of campaigning to come, and Angle’s camp has recently given her campaign website a whitewash, err, makeover, in the hope of appearing more mainstream. Reid hasn’t suddenly gained in popularity, I would guess, so he’s still vulnerable. But Angle can’t win just by showing up–she actually has to play the game well to beat a seasoned veteran.
Now extrapolate that to every single House and Senate race with a vulnerable Democrat, before you start counting next year’s Congressional makeup. It’s going to be a doozy of an election year, to be sure. But for all those who are anticipating a Tea Party landslide, keep in mind that less than a third of the public are Tea Partiers. And I haven’t seen the numbers, but I’m willing to stake my claim that damn few of that number tended to vote Democratic in the past. Indeed, the numbers at their best are about equivalent to the proportion of the public that identifies with the Republican Party. The real question of interest is whether the Tea Parties actually bring a substantial number of new voters to the polls. Based on past “big movements,” I doubt they will. Simply put, Tea Party support is mathematically insufficient to win an election. And no matter how furious conservatives are with Obama, being stridently conservative will be no more help in winning election this year than in any other year.
*About a year later, Davis’s approval rating fell to 22%, with 70% disapproval, and he was removed from office in a recall (only the 2nd governor in U.S. history to be successfully recalled). The 2002 election featured such unpopular candidates that turnout was exceptionally low, making the number of signatures needed for the recall petition abnormally low, consequently easier to achieve. The Republicans who led the recall effort can be chided for not accepting the results of the ’02 election, or they can be admired for being politically clever and not conceding defeat at the first setback. Ironically, however, the recall resulted not in a conservative Republican being elected, but with the victory going to a liberal Republican (Schwarzenegger), demonstrating that the Republicans could have won the first time around if they hadn’t nominated such a very conservative candidate. Also ironic is that today Schwarzenegger’s approval numbers have fallen so far that they reached the depths previously achieved by Davis.