The Political Economy of the Christine O’Donnell Problem

Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell is complaining about a lack of support from the National Republican Senatorial Committee. In response, the NRSC states that it has given her the maximum amount it can legally give directly to a candidate. That’s a nice dodge–they can spend an unlimited amount independently. There are several ways to spin this story: The Tea Party fancies itself such a powerful movement it shouldn’t need such support; the GOP doesn’t want to be represented by someone as loopy as O’Donnell; she’s got a lot of nerve asking the party for money after beating their favored candidate; etc.

But let’s focus on the economic problem facing the Republicans. That should read, “THE economic problem, facing the Republicans” because “THE economic problem” is scarcity, the inability of our resources to satisfy all our desires. As much as the Republicans hold an impressive fund-raising edge over the Democrats, and as much as they expect to be helped electorally by a Republican edge in voter motivation, the NSRC still doesn’t have the equivalent of unlimited resources, so like any middle-class family they must choose where best to spend their money. And Christine O’Donnell represents a bad investment.

For those who’ve had better things to do than follow Delaware politics, here’s a thumbnail sketch of the background. When Delaware Senator Joe Biden became Vice-President–safely removing him from any influence in politics–Biden’s chief-of-staff became a caretaker Senator, declining to run to keep the seat. Although both of Delaware’s Senators are Democrats, the state’s sole House member, Mike Castle, is a Republican. This not only demonstrates that the state is not as overwhelmingly Democratic as its two Senators might suggest, but signaled that Castle had the inside track to be the next Senator, as the only candidate who had won a statewide election, having won the governorship twice and the House seat eight times. In 2008, despite being a Republican in a year of Democratic victories, and running in the home-state of the winning Vice-Presidential candidate, Castle increased his margin of victory and beat his Democratic opponent by 23 points.

Against such a formidable opponent, the Democrats basically capitulated, and recruited a sacrificial lamb, Chris Coons, to be their congenial loser. But a funny thing happened on the way to the general election, and Castle lost to Tea Party fave O’Donnell, opening the way for the Dems to hold the seat.

The Tea Partiers seem to be fully as narcissistic as most fringe movements are, both believing themselves to be rare and special, and to be the true voice of the public. Sure, the left-wingers might scream, but the silent majority will come roaring–well, perhaps not roaring, being silent, but you get the idea–to their standard. They forgot the general rule in American politics that (closed) primaries are dominated by the outer wings of the parties, while general elections turn on which way the moderates swing. And Delaware, as evidenced by its willingness to elect both Republicans and Democrats in state-wide elections, is a moderate state. Mike Castle was perfectly suited to the moderation of the Delaware electorate, which is precisely why the Tea Partiers hated him. In other words, despite their narcissistic conviction that they are the vanguard of the revolution, they are deeply out of step with their fellow citizens. **

So you’re the National Republican Senatorial Committee, tasked with helping Republican Candidates win campaigns. Do you give your limited funds to a person who all the poll show to be down by double-digits, and who Nate Silver (at fivethirtyeight.com) gives a 0% chance of winning?

Investments are made on the basis of expected value, and expected value is a combination of the potential gain and it’s probability. Even if O’Donnell was not a venti-sized flake* of dubious value, her minimal-to-nonexistent chance of winning the seat means she has no expected value. 0 * a gazillion = 0. Any other candidate with a positive expected value, no matter how small, should be favored over O’Donnell for any expenditures beyond the $42,000 contribution they’ve already given her.

Further, it’s evident that more spending isn’t going to help much. O’Donnell hasn’t lagged in fund-raising. She has a 2-1 edge over her opponent, has twice as much cash on hand, and raised $3.8 million last month–an impressive feat in any Senate race, much less in tiny Delaware. Conservatives like to note that just throwing money at problems doesn’t solve them–well, if you have a 2-1 spending advantage and you’re trailing by double-digits (as much as 19% in some polls), it’s time to relearn that lesson.

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*A little elitist Starbucks humor. In reality, I refuse to use Starbucks lingo when I’m in their coffee-shops.
**Only a minuscule portion of O’Donnell’s individual donations come from in-state, another indicator that she is not the vanguard of any revolutionary movement inside Delaware.

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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8 Responses to The Political Economy of the Christine O’Donnell Problem

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  7. ppnl says:

    What is happening in Delaware is an extreme example of what has been happening to the republican party for many years. It has been like watching a slow motion train wreck. Republicans will rebound in the coming election but only at the cost of upping the ante on crazy. I just can’t see any way past this mess.

  8. ppnl says:

    The Delaware debate pretty much underscores the problem with the tea party. The Volokh Conspiracy comments on it here:

    http://volokh.com/2010/10/20/senator-odonnell/

    I like the last sentence as it makes a point I have been making here over and over:

    Those of us who have for many years considered ourselves “libertarians” recognize the problem: we have important, intellectually defensible positions on critical issues, but somehow the public face of the movement is led by people who end up sounding like Christine O’Donnell.

    The libertarian movement should act as a brake on the insanity of the social conservative wing of the republican party. Instead it has the perverse effect of acting as an enabler of the crazy. Until that is fixed mixing republicans and libertarians will be toxic to both. It isn’t that a mixture cannot win. The fact that the mixture can win makes it that much more scary.

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